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Teaching Adolescents Guns' Consequences

To the Editor:

Your Oct. 14, 1998, article on gun violence, "In the Hands of Children," was both timely and well done. I'm disappointed, however, that there wasn't a companion article featuring some of the educational resources available to help children understand the consequences of handling or encountering guns.

Most middle-school-age youths we have spoken with think that if you get shot, you "either live or die." Few have any conception that most gunshot victims suffer from permanent physical damage and handicaps, as well as long-term psychological scars.

At the nonprofit National Emergency Medicine Association, we have produced a short video program designed to be integrated easily into various subject curricula at the middle school level. The program is meant to educate children about the dangers of handling guns, or being confronted by them, and to stimulate discussion among young people about alternative behaviors in various situations. We are seeking, whenever possible, to make this program available at no cost to middle schools across the nation. We do this by seeking out foundations that will assist in defraying the cost of reproduction and shipping.

There are other worthwhile materials available to schools through other organizations as well. No one group has the magic answer to the growing problem of youth gun violence. But it would be a real service to educators, and especially to students, if you would review some of the resources that could begin to make a positive difference.

Bernard L. Antkowiak
National Emergency Medicine Association
Baltimore, Md.

School-Violence 'Fix' Attacks Parents' Rights

To the Editor:

Education Professor Raymond Bell's plan to combat school violence not only is highly impracticable, it also appears to be an assault on parents' civil rights ("To Combat School Violence, Adopt Proven, Not Political Fixes," Oct. 28, 1998). In short, Mr. Bell proposes the ultimate "political fix" for the problem he addresses.

It is extremely unlikely that the nation will vote to increase education's share of the gross national product to a level needed to send, as Mr. Bell proposes, "armies of nurses and teachers" into students' homes authorized to prevent child abuse and poor parenting and to reduce juvenile arrests. Moreover, this takeaway of parents' jurisdiction over their children's rearing and welfare is a clear violation of their constitutional prerogatives.

There is a far more utilitarian, reasonably priced, and legally acceptable way to deter youngsters who commit violent acts against their fellow students and teachers. This is to separate these bullies and gang members from association with the general student body. This isolation would have the desirable effect of restricting them to preying upon one another. It would afford protection for normal students and teachers, who are ill-prepared to repel these offenders' physical attacks.

Patrick Groff
Professor Emeritus
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.

Superintendent 'DNA': Add Integrity, Risk-Taking to the Mix

To the Editor:

As a graduate student earning credentials to become a superintendent, I read with special interest Larry Cuban's essay on the superintendency and its contradictory expectations ("The Superintendent Contradiction," Oct. 14, 1998). His focus was the plight of city superintendents who, though seldom remaining in their jobs for more than three years, are held accountable for effecting total school reform.

Mr. Cuban defines four elements inherent in any superintendency: conflict (the DNA of the job, he says); enduring dilemmas that result from conflict; myths about tenure and effectiveness; and practical understanding of the complexities involved in change and reform.

These elements, along with the various roles a superintendent must play--instructional leader, manager, politician--give a good sense of the post's high level of responsibility. Mr. Cuban contends that the contradictory nature of the three roles brings a fundamental tension to the job, and that superintendents often struggle with an identity crisis about which role is most important. He expands on these roles and how they in turn affect the conflicts, dilemmas, and myths of the superintendency. "The dilemmas may be unsolvable but they can be better managed," he suggests. "They need to be coped with imaginatively, since the myths that surround them will persist."

To be successful, Mr. Cuban says, superintendents need to possess "a practical understanding of the dilemmas" and be willing "to teach school boards, staff, and community the complexities of the value conflicts" that exist in a school district. Superintendents also need to develop, he says, "a clear cause-effect model of how they will influence others to do what has to be done." And, they must state "explicit criteria for what will constitute success as a superintendent."

Superintendents, he concludes, need the determination to counter the quick, short-term solutions for long-term dilemmas that are often demanded by members of the various constituencies.

As I read this, I thought of the interplay among these roles I am observing in my internship. I shadow a superintendent who is a relative newcomer to the position. Although only in her second year, she understands the complexity of the job and the overlay of conflict, resulting dilemmas, persisting myths. She is the first to admit that she's a novice and learning daily. As I see her employing various strategies to educate the board, the staff, and the community about her vision for the district, I find myself agreeing with Mr. Cuban that an understanding of complexity is indeed the successful superintendent's key attribute. But I would add three others: integrity, risk-taking, and the ability to communicate. Three illustrations show why:

  • During a recent in-service training session, my superintendent outlined for a group of teachers the district's goals for the year. Then she challenged them to begin the task of identifying their buildings' goals--ones that would address the district goals but be tailored to a building's specific needs. The teachers worked together in small groups, during which I overheard one man say dismissively, "Some more busy work." When the groups reconvened to share their thoughts, an hour of honest discussion of issues and problems ensued. The result was a first draft of building goals, with an understanding that more soul-searching and discussion by the whole faculty would be needed.

The teacher who had been skeptical about the task sought out the superintendent after the meeting, shook her hand, and thanked her for the willingness to listen and give honest feedback on tough issues. "This has been needed for a long time," he said.

  • The district's semimonthly meeting of key administrators opens with an opportunity for members of the leadership team to air their concerns. The format is an open forum where honesty is valued, but respect for other members is paramount. This team-building is important because most team members are new and the district is suffering disruptions due to continuing extensive construction.

The superintendent supports each team member's efforts to understand what roles and responsibilities he or she has and how they relate to those of other team members. Her communication skills, along with her team-building strategies, allow this process to grow.

  • During a board meeting in the superintendent's first year, an influential member of the community told her he mistrusted administrators. She asked this man to meet with her and, after a long talk marked by candidness, she took the risk of asking him to consider her first as an individual, not as part of a generalized group of administrators not to be trusted.

Through such honest and extensive communication, this superintendent is showing members of her community that she is trustworthy and understands the complexities of her job. And because of these efforts, the man so mistrustful last year has confided that, for the first time in years, he feels someone is truly in charge of the district.

As my understanding of the superintendency grows, my appreciation for Larry Cuban's perspective does, too, along with my belief that we cannot effectively carry out a program of reform without factoring in the communication skills needed to explain, motivate, and mediate, and the attributes of integrity and risk-taking that make real leadership happen.

M. Sue Whitlock
Lansdale, Pa.

Vol. 18, Issue 13, Page 28

Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Letter

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