Reports of assaults, robberies, and vandalism were on the rise in U.S. schools from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. School violence leveled off by 1975. But in the early- and mid-1980s, reports revealed that school violence was on the rise once more, reaching a new peak in the early 1990s. Recent information tells us that today, school violence may be decreasing. In short, school violence, like violence in society, seems to run in cycles. These cycles appear to mirror the trends of violence in our larger society.
The threat of attacks in schools can create fear and disorder among students and teachers. According to a study conducted in 1995, 34 percent of middle school students and 20 percent of high school students admitted that they feared becoming victims of school violence. Eight percent of teachers say they are threatened with violence at school on an average of once a month. Two percent report being physically attacked each year. In a single school year in New York City, 3,984 teachers reported violent crimes against them.
Middle school students are more than twice as likely as high school students to be affected by school violence. Seven percent of eighth graders stay home at least once a month to avoid a bully. Twenty-two percent of urban 11- and 12-year-olds know at least one person their age in a gang. The typical victim of an attack or robbery at school is a male in the seventh grade who is assaulted by a boy his own age.
Studies suggest two reasons for the higher rates of middle school violence. First, early adolescence is a difficult age. Young teenagers are often physically hyperactive and have not learned acceptable social behavior. Second, many middle school students have come into contact for the first time with young people from different backgrounds and distant neighborhoods.
Urban schools suffer most from violence. Many of these schools serve neighborhoods troubled by violence and gang-related crime. It is not surprising that these problems find their way onto campus. But a study of 700 communities conducted by the National League of Cities revealed that 30 percent of suburban and rural schools also reported an increase in violence over a five-year period. In another survey conducted by the Children’s Institute International, almost 50 percent of all teenagers—rural, suburban, and urban—believe that their school is becoming more violent.
What Can Be Done?
Educators and school boards across the nation are trying various measures to improve school safety. Although the goal of each school board is the same, the problem varies from district to district and even from school to school. Some school districts are relatively safe and seek to remain so. Others are plagued with problems of violence and need to restore order. So a number of different strategies are being tried in schools across the United States.
Discipline Codes, Suspensions, and Expulsion
Seeing a need for discipline, many schools are enacting discipline codes. The U.S. Department of Education suggests that schools set guidelines for behavior that are clear and easily understood. Students, teachers, and parents should discuss the school’s discipline policies and talk about how school rules support the rights of students to get a good education. Students should know how to respond clearly to other young people who are intoxicated, abusive, aggressive, or hostile. Students, parents, and teachers can meet and develop an honor code that will contribute to a positive learning environment.
Some schools have started first-offender and rehabilitation programs for students who have been implicated in or suspended for violent assaults at school. These programs offer tutoring and conflict mediation training for the offender and his or her parents. In addition, students and parents may be asked to sign a contract to participate in joint counseling with school staff once the suspended student returns to school.
Many school districts have adopted a zero-tolerance policy for guns. In Los Angeles Unified School District, any student found with a gun is expelled. The policy seems to be weeding out students who are carrying guns. In its first year, about 500 students were recommended for expulsion. The following year the number increased to almost 600 students. The increase raises questions. Is it due to better enforcement? Or is the policy not stopping students from carrying guns?
Another policy rising in popularity is school uniforms. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Education suggests that school uniforms can help reduce theft, violence, and the negative effects of peer pressure caused when some students come to school wearing designer clothing and expensive sneakers. A uniform code also prevents gang members from wearing colors and insignia that could cause trouble and helps school officials recognize intruders who do not belong on campus.
In Long Beach, California, students, teachers, parents, and school officials worked together to establish a uniform code for all elementary and middle schools. Each school chooses what its uniform will look like. In addition, students can “opt out” of wearing a uniform if they have their parents’ approval. The Long Beach program involves 58,000 students and includes assistance for families that cannot afford to buy uniforms. In many Long Beach schools, graduating students donate or sell their used uniforms to needy families.
In the year following the establishment of the uniform policy, Long Beach school officials found that overall school crime decreased 36 percent. Fights decreased 51 percent, sex offenses decreased 74 percent, weapons offenses decreased 50 percent, assault and battery offenses decreased 34 percent, and vandalism decreased 18 percent. Less than 1 percent of the students chose not to wear uniforms.
Across the country, the adoption of school uniforms is so new that it’s impossible to tell whether it will have a long-term impact on school violence. Critics have doubts. And some parents, students, and educators find uniforms coercive and demeaning. Some students complain that uniforms turn schools into prisons.
Increased Security Measures
Whenever a violent incident occurs on a campus, there usually are calls to institute stricter security. Many school districts are turning to security measures such as metal detectors, surveillance cameras, X-ray machines, high fences, uniformed security guards, and increased locker searches. Machines similar to those that line airports now stand in many school entrances. Video cameras common to convenience stores now monitor hallways of some schools. About one-fourth of all large school districts routinely use metal detectors to keep guns off campuses. A couple years ago, New York purchased X-ray machines to scan student purses and book bags for weapons.
These security measures definitely deter some violence, but they also have drawbacks. Take metal detectors as an example. First of all, they are expensive. Second, it takes a long time to scan every student. One Brooklyn, New York, high school has students arrive in shifts to get through the metal detectors. Third, metal detectors cannot deter anyone determined to carry a weapon. As a 1993 report for Dade County School Board stated: “Students become creative. They pass weapons in through windows to friends, hide knives and other sharp instruments in shoes and in girlfriend’s hair. They manage to find creative ways to bring weapons to school.”
Conflict Mediation and Other Education Programs
A number of schools have developed programs that focus on building students’ self-esteem and developing social skills to improve student communication. And thousands of schools at all grade levels are teaching methods of conflict resolution and peer mediation to students, parents, and school staff. In some schools, teachers and students are required to get to know each other in discussion sessions where everyone describes their personal strengths and weaknesses, their likes and dislikes, what makes them laugh, and what makes them angry.
Other schools are adopting innovative curricular programs. Law-related education helps students understand the legal system and social issues through interactive classroom activities. Service learning links classroom learning to activities in the community. Character education teaches basic values.
Many educators believe it is important to break down the cold, impersonal atmosphere of large schools by creating “schools within schools,” or smaller communities of learning. Whenever possible, they argue, schools should hire more teachers to minimize school violence associated with classroom overcrowding. They also think it is helpful to offer specialized vocational training and instruction in career development to prepare young people for life in ways they can recognize are important.
Joining With the Community
Numerous schools have had success in reducing school violence by developing contacts with police, gang intervention workers, mental health workers, the clergy and the business community. Community groups and businesses can work with schools to create “safe zones,” for students on their way to and from school. Stores and offices can also identify themselves as “safe spaces,” where young people can find protection if they are being threatened. Enlisting the aid of the community to deal with school violence raises awareness of the problem and helps educators put their money where it belongs, in education.
Still other school districts have set up outreach programs with local employers, so that students with good academic records or special vocational training can be placed in jobs. Professor Jackson Toby of Rutgers University recommends that employers require high school transcripts as part of the job application process and make it known that the best jobs will go to students with the best records.
1. What factors do you think might contribute to school disorder and violence?
2. Why does school violence often occur more frequently in middle schools than in high schools?
3. Imagine that you are a school principal who must discipline a first-time violent offender. What action would you take?
4. What actions would you take as a school principal to ensure the safety of your students?
ACTIVITY: School Board Role Play
Step 1: Divide the class into groups of five. Inform students that each of these groups is going to role play the school board in Middletown, a small city. Tell them that the superintendent of schools has an important message for the board.
Step 2: Read aloud to the class this message from the superintendent:
Good afternoon, members of the Board of Education.
I am pleased to report that we have received the school safety grant that you directed me to apply for. The Middletown School District will receive $200,000 in grant funds. It is our job to use this money to make Middletown School District safer for our students. I await your instructions on how the School District should spend this money.
Make sure students understand that the board is to determine how to spend $200,000 to improve safety in Middletown schools.
Step 3: Tell students that six proposals have been submitted to the board.
School Safety Proposals
1. Special program for disruptive students. This program provides a special classroom at each school for students who are disruptive or who have been involved in violent behavior. A teacher and counselor will be specially trained to work closely with these students to improve their attitude, behavior, and study skills. Special attention will be paid to students with learning problems. If necessary, counseling services may be extended to families of these students. Cost: $120,000
2. School uniform program. All elementary and middle school students will be required to wear school uniforms unless parents opt out of the program. Each school will select its own uniform. The program will provide assistance to families who cannot afford to buy uniforms. Cost: $20,000
3. Increased security equipment and personnel. This plan provides metal detectors and hallway surveillance cameras on each middle and high school campus. One new security guard will be hired at each school to help staff the equipment. Cost: $160,000
4. Conflict resolution program. High school and middle school teachers will be trained in conflict resolution skills, which they will teach in various classes. Each middle and high school will develop a peer mediation program, in which students learn how to settle disputes among students. These peer mediators will also travel to elementary schools and train students in conflict resolution. Cost $67,000
5. School security patrol. This plan will pay for five full-time security officers to patrol the streets around schools in Middletown. These officers will patrol weekdays from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. They will protect students traveling to and from school. These officers will also assist Middletown school security officers with problems on the school grounds and keep in radio contact with the Middletown Police Department. Cost: $140,000
6. Parent Training. This plan will pay for special night classes for parents. The classes will teach effective discipline techniques, how to deal with problem behaviors, and how to help students with school work. There will be classes for parents of students of all ages—from elementary school to high school. Cost: $25,000
Review each of the proposals. Answer any questions students may have.
Step 4: Tell each group to do the following:
Rank the programs according to which will be the most effective in reducing violence at the school.
Rank them again according to which will be the most cost effective. In other words, which will get the most results for each dollar spent?
Decide which programs you want funded and how much you will award each. Remember, you cannot exceed $200,000.
Make sure students understand that they can partially fund proposals if they want and that they cannot go over the $200,000 limit.
Step 5: Give students time for the role play. When groups are ready, have them report back their decisions. Record their decisions on the board.
Step 6: Debrief by asking: Which proposal seemed weakest? Strongest? Why?
This Online Lesson is made possible by a generous grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation.