Teaching is different from what it used to be. Fifty years ago, the main disciplinary problems were running in halls, talking out of turn, and chewing gum. Today's transgressions include physical and verbal violence, incivility, and in some schools, drug abuse, robbery, assault, and murder. The result is that many teachers spend an inordinate amount of time and energy managing classroom conflicts (Amsler and Sadella 1987). When students poorly manage their conflicts with each other and with faculty, aggression results (McCormick 1988, Kreidler 1984). Such behavior is usually punished with detentions, suspensions, and expulsions (Ray, Kestner, and Freedman 1985).
As violence increases, pressure for safe and orderly schools increases. Schools are struggling with what to do. This book offers two interrelated approaches: a violence prevention program and a conflict resolution program. Examining violence in schools and society and the influences that support violence helps us understand why we need such programs.
Violence in Schools
The number of violence incidences in schools is increasing. The National League of Cities reports that between 1990 and 1994, 33 percent of member cities had a significant increase in school violence (a student killed or seriously injured), and in 1993–94, school violence increased 55 percent in large cities and 41 percent in cities of 100,000 or more. Ten percent of teachers and nearly one-fourth of students in public schools say that they have been the victim of a violent act in school (Hamburger 1993). In 1993, one-fourth of all high school seniors reported they had been threatened with violence (“Stop the Violence” 1994).
Although these statistics indicate that school violence is increasing, some studies suggest that the seriousness may be overstated. Opotow (1991) interviewed 40 inner-city 7th graders and found that about two-thirds described school conflicts as violent. In reality, the fights were usually infrequent scuffles that caused no or minor injury. Garofalo, Siegel, and Laub (1987) analyzed the National Crime Survey for school-related victimizations among adolescents and found scuffles, threats, and disagreements rather than calculated assaults or violence. Resulting injuries were minor bruises, black eyes, cuts, scratches, and swelling. The picture of school violence was one of teasing, bullying, and horseplay that had gotten out of hand. The researchers determined that the alarm about rampant violence in schools is not justified, but concern about the frequency with which adolescents victimize each other is, even though the victimizations are more bothersome than injurious.
In interpreting the evidence, one can conclude that violence in schools is increasing, but most students are unaffected by it. Those who are tend to overstate its severity. The potential for serious violence is also increasing. Consequently, public concern is justified.
Violence in Society
Violence among young people in society is increasing. Adolescent homicide rates have reached the highest in U.S. history. Gunfire kills 15 individuals under the age of 19 daily. From 1982 to 1992, juvenile arrests for homicides increased 228 percent; the homicide rate among teenage males (15–19 years) more than doubled between 1985 and 1991.
Violence is a growing problem in the workplace. Recent incidences include disgruntled workers killing coworkers at post offices and restaurants. Some estimates place the dollar cost to U.S. businesses for workplace violence at nearly $4.2 billion.
Such an increase in schools and society has led educators to ask, “Why is this violence occurring?” Three influences help answer this question: changing patterns of family and community life; how society has redefined violence as normal and acceptable; and easy access to guns and drugs.
Changing Patterns of Family and Community Life
Today, children are more isolated from parents, extended family members, and other adults than ever before. Workplaces are separated from living places, so children do not see most working adults. Divorce, abuse, poverty, drugs, and other forces that interfere with healthy parenting disrupt many families. With isolation, separation, and abuse comes a lack of socialization. The family, neighborhood, and community dynamics that once socialized young people into the norms of society are often extinct. No one is teaching children how to manage conflicts constructively through example or through indirect methods, such as moral codes and patterns of living.
Some communities directly promote violence as a way to resolve disputes. Inner-city children typically grow up surrounded by teenagers and adults who are themselves deviant, delinquent, or criminal. The result is youth who have been directly and painfully taught to be violent when faced with a conflict.
Redefining Violence as Normal
What is perhaps most alarming is that violence is becoming so commonplace in many communities and schools that it is considered the norm rather than the exception. For example, a 14-year-old girl, responding to her mother's concern about a drive-by shooting near her school, said, “Mom, get used to it—that's the way it is.”
Mass media influence how people view violence and deviant behavior. Some television shows obliterate or obscure the boundaries that society has created between good and evil, public and private, shame and pride (Abt and Seesholtz 1994). Politicians and special interest groups may deliberately lie to sell an image or a point of view—actions that have become normal. Killing is sometimes portrayed as understandable and righteous when it advances a certain point of view on a controversial issue.
Easy Access to Guns and Drugs
A combination of guns and drugs results in much of the current violence. Because many young people have easy access to both, conflicts that in the past would have resulted in a bloody lip now result in a deadly shooting. Alcohol and drug use lead to loss of self-control, angry outbursts, and violent acts. A report to Congress tied alcohol to 40 percent of murders and 52 percent of rapes.
What Is the School's Responsibility?
Changes in family, neighborhood, and societal life have resulted in youth who are not socialized into constructive patterns of conflict management and who are taught how to manage conflicts with violence and aggression. Given these circumstances, what is the school's responsibility in teaching students how to be productive and contributing members of our society? How should schools deal with violent and disruptive students? Two views prevail:
- Schools should be places where educators try to salvage lost lives.
- Schools should be places where educators try to maximize the potential of well-behaved students who want an education.
The first view sees the school's mission as saving violent and disruptive students. A report of the National Association of State Boards of Education emphasizes the rights of disruptive students. It also suggests that schools should restructure themselves to provide a curriculum with special programs that teach teachers and students how to cope with violent students. The report proposes that schools bend over backwards not to exclude violent or disruptive students or take them out of class. Schools should use alternative programs only when in-class interventions have been exhausted and a plan exists for returning the violent and disruptive students as quickly as possible to their regular classes. The basic position is, We must not give up on these students, no matter what.
The second view advocates removing violent and disruptive students from class to increase the quality and quantity of learning for motivated and well-behaved students. Focusing school services and attention on violent students encourages classmates to emulate their behavior. Proponents of this view emphasize requiring students to take responsibility for their behavior by accepting the consequences of their actions. Separating chronically violent and disruptive students from mainstream classes is viewed as the way in which to further the education of all other students.
The argument is over whether schools should teach students how to behave in appropriate and constructive ways or whether schools should teach only students who have already learned how to behave appropriately. The answer is not yet clear. Schools need to be safe havens—concentrating on math is hard if students are apprehensive about their safety.
Making Schools Safe Learning Environments
Providing students with an orderly environment in which to learn and ensuring student safety are becoming more difficult in many schools. An increasing number of public and private teachers and administrators face situations involving serious conflicts among students and between students and faculty. In response, schools are adopting various violence prevention and conflict resolution programs.
Preventing violence and resolving conflicts are interrelated. Violence prevention programs alone are not enough—students also need to learn how to manage conflicts constructively. Violence and even homicide often result from spontaneous arguments among acquaintances or friends (Prothrow-Stith, Spivak, and Hausman 1987). Students need an alternative to using violence for resolving conflicts.
Training students in conflict resolution not only helps schools become orderly and peaceful places in which high-quality education can take place but also improves instruction. Constructive conflict can gain and hold attention, increase motivation to learn, arouse intellectual curiosity, and improve the quality and creativity of problem solving. The benefits of such training extend beyond schools. Students are prepared to manage future conflicts constructively in career, family, community, national, and international settings.
To implement violence prevention and conflict resolution programs, schools need to follow a sequential process:
- Admit that destructive conflicts are out of control.
- Implement a violence prevention program.
- Become a conflict positive organization.
- Implement a conflict resolution program.
- Create a cooperative context.
- Institute conflict resolution/peer mediation training that teaches students how to negotiate and mediate and teachers how to arbitrate.
- Use academic controversy to improve instruction.