School Climate & Safety

Schools Embrace Violence-Prevention Curricula

By Millicent Lawton — November 09, 1994 9 min read

Every day in America, children make victims of other children, whether with their fists, with knives, or with guns.

And if violence is a learned behavior, then, many hope, young people can be taught ways of heading off such aggression.

More and more, schools are doing their part to teach students how to prevent the incidents that have made homicide the nation’s third-leading cause of death for children of elementary and middle school age.

Homicide is the number-one cause of death among African-American youths.

But nobody knows whether what the schools are doing works.

As with solutions to other social problems, the techniques for preventing violence among children are not as fully developed as the problem itself. Few long-term or scientific evaluations have been done on violence-prevention curricula and other school-based programs.

National ‘Call to Action’

Even so, many researchers advise school officials to forge ahead, if with caution.

In Washington last week, Edward F. Zigler, the Sterling professor of psychology at Yale University, told reporters that school officials should use programs such as conflict resolution and social-skills training. Even though evaluations are not complete, he said, some programs “look promising.”

Mr. Zigler appeared with other educators, civil-rights leaders, policymakers, and activists as part of a national conference, “Breaking the Cycle of Violence,” in Chicago and Washington.

As part of a 12-point “call to action” the leaders, including U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, and Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, recommended that conflict resolution be taught at school and at home.

Violence-prevention curricula “must be a long-term and consistent” part of education, they said.

Evidence continues to point to the seriousness of violence as a problem for schools.

A survey released last week by the National League of Cities found that incidents of school violence in which students were killed or seriously injured occurred in 41 percent of the responding cities with populations larger than 100,000.

‘No Magic Answers’

Experts advise against counting on a quick fix for youth violence.

Some school administrators have turned to “off the shelf” curricula or materials that readily can be plugged into the already packed school day.

And, in what is clearly a growth industry, there is no shortage of manuals and videotapes from which educators can choose.

There are more than 300 violence-prevention programs and more than 100 conflict-resolution curricula for middle and high school students, according to the National Network of Violence Prevention Practitioners.

Some of them are widely used. In New York City, the well-regarded Resolving Conflict Creatively Program, which began in 1985, is used in 150 schools, with 3,000 teachers and 70,000 students participating.

Nationally, a more narrowly focused curriculum from the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence has been available for only 2 years, yet it is used in 32 districts, including the nation’s four largest: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dade County, Fla.

About 60,000 students use the pre-K-12 curriculum, said Nancy P. Gannon, the director of the Washington-based center’s education division.

But “there are no magic answers,” said Stu Cohen, the director of the Center for Violence Prevention and Control at the nonprofit Education Development Center in Newton, Mass.

Patrick Tolan, an associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said educators have to realize that “just because you have a program doesn’t mean you’re doing something.”

Evaluations Expensive

Because so few violence-prevention programs have been evaluated formally, it is difficult to determine what type of curriculum works.

“There is not a large body of evaluation that school-based violence-prevention curricula work, but then there haven’t been a lot of evaluations,” Mr. Cohen said.

For example, the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program is rare to have had two independent, though unpublished, evaluations completed. Another is under way, as is one for the Straight Talk About Risks program. An evaluation is planned for the widely known, community-based Boston Violence Prevention Program.

In a paper by Mr. Tolan and Nancy Guerra of the University of Illinois, they sum up the rarity of empirical evaluation for adolescent violence-prevention programs: “It is not uncommon to find groups claiming the effectiveness of a program simply because it serves a large number of persons or has existed for a substantial period of time, or because testimonials have been collected from clients and authority figures. Although these may represent desirable features of interventions, they have been too often persuasive in place of any demonstrated effects.”

Evaluations have not been done to date, experts said, because they are costly and because there has been more emphasis on developing programs--on doing something.

But not everyone puts great stock in empirical evaluations or the publication of a study in a peer-reviewed journal.

To say that a curriculum has not been sufficiently evaluated “because it hasn’t been replicated in 10 different places--I don’t buy that,” said Gwendolyn Cooke, the director of urban services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

“If it makes a difference in my school, and I have a reduction of 10 percent in some problem, those materials are O.K. by me, and I don’t need researchers” to say it works, said Ms. Cooke, a middle school principal in Baltimore until 1991.

Part of Broader Effort

Because violence can have many causes, questions of how to stop it have complex answers. Most violence by youths results from a situation or a relationship, but there are other kinds, and not every strategy will work every time.

To have the best chance of being effective, researchers say, programs should be comprehensive--dealing with students, teachers, family, and community.

“No one who’s really working in the field seriously thinks that a curriculum alone is really the answer to violence prevention,” Mr. Cohen said.

“Curricula need to be part of a much broader effort at violence prevention,” he said. “But they can play a very important role.”

Ideally, programs should be tailored to each school or student population, researchers say.

“You can’t necessarily plunk a program down ... and pop in a videotape and hope it’s going to do what you want it to do,” said Betty R. Yung, an associate professor of psychology at Wright State University and the coordinator of program research and evaluation for the Positive Adolescent Choices Training program in Dayton, Ohio.

According to Renee Wilson-Brewer, the former director of the National Network of Violence Prevention Practitioners: “If you’re going to do violence prevention the right way, it would make sense to really understand the school system--the student population, the faculty population ... the kinds of violence that have occurred, the community, and its social organization and lack of organization.”

“It’s a time-consuming and difficult task to do,” Ms. Wilson-Brewer said. But “unless you do that, you’re not really able to create a program that really responds to the need of the population you’re hoping to affect.”

Ms. Guerra and Mr. Tolan, who are running a federally financed, school-based study of violence prevention in Chicago, conclude in their paper on adolescent violence-prevention programs that while evaluations on curbing violence are few, some strategies may offer hope because they show effects on antisocial behavior.

Promising Interventions

Several types of interventions show promise for schools, they say.

Increasing parental involvement, such as parental access to teachers, parental support for school efforts, and increased opportunities for parents to have valued roles in school, appears to work, the researchers found.

Increasing the motivation of high-risk youths to attend classes and perform in school and engage in positive community activities is another valuable intervention, they say. And providing opportunities for youths to have more prosocial roles in schools and communities also seems to be successful, Ms. Guerra and Mr. Tolan found.

Intervention programs that focus on families--improving parent behavior-management skills, promoting emotional cohesion within the family, and aiding family problem-solving--appear to be effective.

The popular practice of peer mediation has been minimally evaluated, Ms. Guerra and Mr. Tolan say, and the evaluations that have been done have had mixed results.

In Ms. Yung’s PACT program in Dayton, which she runs with her Wright State colleague W. Rodney Hammond, researchers have had good results working in one school with 25 to 30 middle school students each semester.

Two days a week, as part of a health curriculum, the high-risk students--mostly African-American boys--work on social skills, anger management, and “street survival skills.”

After three years, only one in five of 170 students has been sent to jail or been charged with a crime, compared with one in two from a control group.

Do Skills Help?

Daniel W. Webster, an instructor in the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health in Baltimore, cautions that many programs “overemphasize” skills.

Skills such as negotiation, listening effectively, and controlling emotions may be useful life skills, he said. But to believe that the reason students fight is that they lack the skills to avoid it may be misguided, he suggested.

Intensive interventions with very high-risk young children and their parents are promising, he said. He and others cited the Perry Preschool Program in Ypsilanti, Mich., in the 1960’s as an example. That program put inner-city black children in preschool and included home visits with families. Years later, those children were more likely than their peers to be socially stable adults.

But Ms. Wilson-Brewer said that with conflict-resolution skills, a student can learn what risks are inherent in a given situation.

“You’ve got some added skills, and you can use it to the best of your ability in this situation,” she said. “But if you don’t have those skills, you don’t have a choice.”

Evaluations in the Works

Experts emphasize that any program must offer real-life, interactive examples and plenty of practice using them.

For officials unsure which program to pick, Mr. Tolan recommends that they use two programs and determine which works best.

Meanwhile, evaluations of programs and other guides for action are in the works.

The federal government is sponsoring what is perhaps the largest evaluation project. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will spend nearly $11 million over three years on a total of 15 evaluation projects.

Twelve of the programs being evaluated are fairly targeted strategies, all but two are school-based programs, and three are more broad, community demonstration projects. (See box.)

And last month, officials from the U.S. Education and Justice departments convened a small meeting of violence-prevention experts to offer advice on an upcoming government publication.

They hope to produce, perhaps by spring, a guide to selecting a conflict-resolution program, said William Modzeleski, the director of drug planning and outreach for the Education Department.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 09, 1994 edition of Education Week as Schools Embrace Violence-Prevention Curricula


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