Coming to Terms with School Violence

By Pedro Noguera

Violence in schools is not new. If one looks at the history of education in the United States, particularly of urban public schools, it is clear that problems of violence have been around almost as long as schools have been in existence. What is new, however, is the dramatic increase in school violence and the growing use of guns to resolve disputes.

As a first step in addressing this problem, we must recognize that in many ways our schools are safer than the communities where many children live. Many of the kids that I have worked with tell me they are more worried about violence in their neighborhood than they are about violence in school. At least in schools there are rules against violence and adults present who are supposed to enforce such rules. On the streets, in the playgrounds, and even at home, there is often no such protection.

Too often we unfairly place unreasonable expectations on our schools. We expect schools to be safe places, and of course they should be, but we ignore the fact that our society is increasingly unsafe. It is unrealistic to expect that our schools can escape the violence that pervades our society.

Combating violence is difficult because it is promoted and legitimized by the mass media and by political leaders. While it is difficult to determine to what extent the glorification of violence in movies and on television affects young people, psychological studies suggest that, at the minimum, such exposure has a numbing effect on viewers.

Children receive mixed messages when violence is construed as a legitimate way to achieve political and military objectives.

The justification of the killings in Waco, Texas by FBI agents; Clinton’s rationalizing the deaths of Iraqi civilians during recent bombing raids by U.S. war planes as unfortunate “collateral damage”; the U.S. invasions of Panama in 1989 and of Grenada in 1983 — all legitimized the use of deadly force against civilians.

Given the regularity with which violence is used for “legitimate” purposes, it is not surprising that children are confused about the appropriateness of responding violently to conflicts with others.

Problems Within Schools

There are also internal reasons, however, that schools are vulnerable to violence.

Many teachers receive no training on how to deal with violence; it is rarely part of the curriculum in teacher training. Further, the individuals responsible for enforcing discipline often have no legitimacy or credibility in the eyes of students. There is an absence of moral authority — which is different from institutional authority or the authority derived from one’s job title. Just being an adult or holding a certain title doesn’t mean that kids will automatically accept your right to exercise authority over them.

I can think of several schools where you can find kids shooting dice in the hallways or engaging in some other blatantly inappropriate behavior, and teachers will pretend not to see it because they are afraid to tell the kids to stop. Yet in the same school there will be certain individuals who can stop them, not through force or intimidation, but because of the relationship they have developed with the kids. These are adults who can tell kids, “That’s not allowed here. I expect better of you than that,” and the kids respond.

When we don’t have adults in schools who understand the experience of the kids, who can speak in a language they understand and communicate in ways that are meaningful to them, then it becomes almost impossible to develop a safe and respectful school environment.

In urban schools, most teachers do not live in the communities where they work. They have a limited knowledge of their students’ lives outside of school. This physical and psychological detachment from the students’ lives is often compounded by differences based on race and class. Together, these factors add considerably to the inability of teachers and school personnel to respond effectively to the causes of violence in schools.

In addition, schools typically rely on ineffective methods to deal with violence. The threat of suspension or expulsion — the ultimate punishment and the one that is often relied upon as the onlyway to deal with violence — may not mean much to some children, particularly to those who have already experienced failure in school or who may not attend school regularly.

Currently, the most fashionable response to school violence is the tendency toward making schools more like prisons. Many schools now have metal detectors stationed at the entry points. In the last few years, New York City has spent close to $28 million to install metal detectors. Other districts have hired armed security guards or installed sophisticated security systems, turning schools into lock-down facilities. It is ironic that we are using prisons as our models for safety and security, even though prisons are generally not safe places.

Further, these measures are undertaken without sufficient thought to the social and psychological consequences that may result from changing the school environment in this way.

When I look at this problem, I see it not only through the eyes of a researcher and policymaker, but through my own personal experience. As a former teacher of African Studies at a continuation high school, I have worked with many young men who have been incarcerated and who have lived within an environment filled with violence. As a school board member, I have presided over expulsion hearings for students who have committed acts of violence; I have also had to make decisions that profoundly affect the lives of students and the schools they attend. As an activist in my community, I also work closely with parents and teachers, trying to develop an effective response to the violence that consumes our youth.

Growing Up in New York

I also remember what it was like for me growing up in New York. The threat and possibility of violence permeated my school and community, and most people I knew accepted it as an ugly but unavoidable part of life.

At an early age I learned that bullies often got their way; that the best way to avoid a fight was to show no fear; that you must always be willing and prepared to hurt someone if necessary. I learned that violence was an effective means to get status and respect. I learned that in order to survive, I would have to deal with violence. At 14 my cousin of the same age was stabbed to death for refusing to give up his leather jacket. The next year a kid I knew in school was arrested for the kidnap and rape of a female student. Luck, the fears of getting caught, of ruining my future and embarrassing my family, prevented me from falling victim to violence.

Still, my experience has influenced my understanding of how kids view violence. At a gut level, I understand why kids fight or why they might react violently toward a teacher. I know why so many see violence as a legitimate way to resolve problems, because I once felt the same way.

Useless Dichotomies

In our society we often categorize individuals who commit violence as deviants and sociopaths. Many counselors and psychologists view violent behavior as a form of conduct disorder based on socially maladaptive tendencies. This type of labeling presumes that there are some individuals who are potentially violent and who should be kept away from the rest of the population, which is ostensibly made up of good, honest, law-abiding people.

Labeling children in this way influences how we see them and contributes to self-fulfilling prophecies.

Such dichotomies prevent us from understanding an issue like violence because they set up artificial dividing lines that presume the existence of fundamental differences between people based on morals or social conduct. Moreover, such distinctions keep us from recognizing how difficult it is to predict who is potentially violent, and leave us dumbfounded when a young person with no past record of violent behavior suddenly “goes off” violently on someone else. While many children do need individual attention, and isolation may at times be the only way to respond, policies aimed at deterring violence should not be directed solely at those considered likely to engage in violence.

As a starting point toward dealing with violence in schools, we must identify some of the factors that contribute to the problem. Some, such as the availability of guns and the promotion of violence in the media, may seem beyond the control of parents and school personnel. While we must devise strategies for addressing these issues, we may want to first focus on how to create a school environment that promotes respect, dignity, and non-violence.

For too many students, going to school is a violating and demeaning experience. The anonymity of large schools and the irrelevance of what is taught to the experience and aspiration of children cultivates indifference and disrespect toward school and the adults who work there. Feelings of hostility and resentment are exacerbated when adults arbitrarily enforce rules, forgetting that they are working with children. Further, some adults are just plain mean when they deal with kids.

I have found that children consistently respect those teachers that set high standards for behavior and academic performance, and who demonstrate a personal interest in their students. Most schools have at least one teacher that fits this description. But too often that person works in isolation rather than being used as a role model for effective teaching. One way to spread around the knowledge and experience of such teachers is to establish mentoring relationships and to encourage collaboration between teachers.

There are also ways to provide security that do not dehumanize the environment. At one junior high school in Oakland, Calif., an elderly woman serves as the campus security monitor, rather than an armed guard or large, intimidating man. This woman lives in the neighborhood surrounding the school and understands the kids’ reality, culture, and needs. Without the threat of force this woman is able to break up fights, enforce basic schools rules, and keep those who do not belong off the school campus. She can do this because she speaks in terms the children understand and, most of all, because the kids know that she truly cares about them. She has moral authority, derived not from her position, but from who she is and what she represents in their community.

In my conversations with students who attend schools with a reputation for violence, I am struck by their total dissatisfaction with the schools. Rather than appreciating the potential opportunities that might result from their education, they see attendance at school primarily as a way to meet and socialize with friends. These children have no respect for their schools or the adults who work there. School, like the park, the neighborhood block or hang-out spot, is seen as appropriate a place as any for carrying out reprisals against enemies or sorting out personal conflicts. School is not a special place where violence is deemed inappropriate. Further, their feelings about school may be so negative that the institution itself may become the object of their violence through vandalism or harassment of teachers and other adults.

As we look at the problem of violence within schools, we must connect it to the larger issues confronting schools, particularly inner city schools. School violence is not strictly an urban phenomenon, nor is it limited to low-income communities.

Increasingly, middle-class suburban schools, and even schools in affluent areas, have problems with violence. However, the problems of urban schools are particularly acute and are complicated by their connection to the prevalence of poverty, crime, and despair in our cities.

Urban schools must not only address the academic needs of their students, they must also find the resources to provide social and psychological support to students and their families. Yet many schools define their mission too narrowly. Problems like violence, drugs, and teen pregnancy are often seen as beyond the scope of what schools can or should address. Clearly, extra resources in both funding and skilled personnel are needed to expand the services that schools provide. Perhaps even more important, schools need a broadened vision of what they can do to respond more effectively to the needs of children.

Violence in our schools is only a symptom of a much larger problem facing schools and society generally. To treat the problem in isolation only perpetuates a reliance on failed methods. There are no easy answers. But at the minimum we have to find more ways to bring together, on a regular basis, students and those adults with whom they can identify. We must also work toward making our schools more humane and responsive to children’s needs. This may not sound like much, especially when compared to the high-tech solutions promoted in most quarters. But in the long run it may have the greatest impact.