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February 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 5

Building a Gentler School

For students steeped in the culture of violence, classrooms often offer one last chance to expose them to more constructive ways of relating.

Teachers learn quickly that students who live in violent neighborhoods are different from those who live in safe communities. In certain ways, teaching is not teaching and kids are not kids. Aggression and belligerence are omnipresent. Young people quickly join their peers in in-school suspensions, detention halls, juvenile facilities, or other alternative settings.
Escalating school violence reflects a troubling reality— students in poverty are not aware of, have not seen, and so do not value alternatives to their behavior. Aggression, callousness, stress, high mobility, and homelessness may be abnormal for advantaged youths, but for those who grow up in neighborhoods pervaded by these dynamics, they are commonplace. These children have little in their neighborhoods to envy. They are surrounded by environmental degradation, idols who admire violence, and raw fear.
The sorting process starts early and may appear inexorable. “These days it seems as if babies are born and programmed to be little hoods and gangsters,” physician D. Prothrow-Stith quotes a ghetto teen musing. “All the young ones want to be like the older guys clocking dollars and looking fly [cool]” (1991, p. 90).

Trapped by Peers

Students whose peer group has seemingly endless power over them believe they have no alternative to victimizing others and putting themselves behind bars. When in trouble, they mouth the same lines: “I joined a gang because I wanted a family.” “I carry a gun because all the other kids do.” “I can't be different from my homies; they'll hurt me.”
Children 6 or 7 years old wield guns. A boy pushes one of his friends out a 27th-story window for refusing to steal. Being a “buster”—someone who won't kill—is the ultimate sign of weakness for gang youths. The rap group “Offspring,” popular among many middle school students, sings of gangs staking turf in schools: “If one guy's colors and the other's don't mix, they're gonna bash it up. Hey, man, you talking back to me? Take him out.” This defend-or-die mentality results from utter terror in the absence of options.
Schools must help these students find new identities outside their present fragile and superficial ones. If a student sees himself as no more than the sum of a particular sports jacket, three gold chains, and his hood affiliation, he hangs by a fragile thread indeed. That's why kids kill one another when they are “dissed”: they feel trapped; unable psychologically to survive without retaliating in kind. It will take a whole new self-definition for them to be able to walk away from a fight.

New Role Models; Gentler Options

How can schools help violent students envision a gentler way to live? How can we provide them with a better way to see and experience life? Our schools must take the lead in introducing these students to an alternative culture of nonviolent options through gentle teaching and moral vision. We must help them discover new ways to solve social problems and to make empathetic decisions.
Students grasp the vision of a new way of behaving by (1) experiencing teacher patterns of communication that are gentle; (2) observing how “gentle” teachers respond to threats, verbal abuse, given stimuli, or typical environmental violence; and (3) seeing what teachers value.
To counter the culture of violence in school, we must model gentle responses to aggression—it may be the only glimpse of another way of doing business that aggressive students will ever witness. It will take a lot of work, considerable vision, and extreme perseverance.
It is imperative that principals and teachers learn how to scrutinize their interpersonal relationships and how these relationships either demonstrate new opportunities for kids or reaffirm a bleak suspicion.

Dangers of Directive Teaching

Teachers must avoid patterns that are characteristic of violent environments: an authoritarian and directive approach in which the teacher overpowers the student.
Typically, the teacher and student rap out a well-rehearsed exchange. Teachers ask or tell; students respond and comply. No one needs to think. When students become unbearably bored or the rewards of escaping become irresistible, noncompliance and elimination from the class ensues. Students reward teachers for not making them think by not getting in trouble; students punish teachers for making them think by disrupting the class.
Overly directive teaching limits time for interaction and reduces opportunities for modeling prosocial behaviors. Lecturing, giving directions, assigning and checking homework, taking role, punishing noncompliance, marking papers, and similar activities permit little time for conversation, reasoning, or discussing consequences. Further, responding dictatorially will only increase antisocial behavior. Teachers need to remember that “abuse is not as strongly linked to delinquency as it is to rejection” (U.S. Department of Justice 1994, p. 34).
Thoughtlessly authoritarian responses do not relieve the fear, distrust, verbal threats, and physical pain many children bring to school—conditions that interfere with learning. Ejecting students from the class may increase alienation and, in an atmosphere already concentrated on outcomes, inadvertently and ironically increase students' likelihood of academic failure, their need for hyper-alertness, the likelihood of violence in school, and a loss of hope. As the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention observed in a report, “Fear of reprisal seldom leads to compliance” (U.S. Department of Justice 1994).

Empathy and Moral Reasoning

Recently, I shared with my class the fact that my child is Korean. One day, a bellicose 16-year-old 8th grader asked me, “Heh, Miss, how's that little egg roll?” Caught off guard and simmering with anger, I considered a repertoire of possible responses. Most personally satisfying was the temptation to publicly humiliate the student with a curt remark, then eject the student from the classroom. While this would not surprise the student, it also would not generate any options.
A response that expressed my feelings and those of other students would have been appropriate. “That remark made me feel angry and sad, like maybe you yourself have not experienced racial prejudice. Was it your intent to make me feel sad?” If the student had said, “Yes, of course!” I could have evenhandedly said, “Well, it's not appreciated,” and gone on with the lesson.
Another possible response would have been to set up a meeting between the student and my child, quietly and without humiliating the offender. It would have robbed him of the joy of parading his behavior before his peers, while presenting an opportunity for a humane exchange. Allowing them to meet each other without the presence of baiting peers may have helped the student see my child as an individual and to build empathy.
In fact, I quietly requested a meeting between the two of us after class. “Have you ever been hurt?,” I asked. “Yes, Miss,” he responded. “Can you recall how you felt?” “Hurt,” he said. “Well, that's how I felt, too. Why did you do that?” I asked gently. “I wanted to show the other guys.” There it was—posturing for peers.
The key in these situations is to come up with a response that models respect for the offender, while critically examining his or her behavior. The response must demonstrate that the teacher values feelings and differentiate between the emotion and reasoned response. It also must derail and deflate escalating hostility, not giving the student and his peers the satisfaction of returned scorn.
When we increase the capacity of students for moral reasoning and empathy in making decisions, we also help reduce juvenile delinquency (U.S. Department of Justice 1994). Changing students' behavior in this way requires exposing them to this contrasting behavior—daily—in people they admire. Chances are they do not see it at home or in their neighborhood.
This kind of ongoing observation and learning requires more than a course in Violence 101 or Conflict Resolution (perhaps patched onto sessions on pregnancy prevention and substance abuse prevention). Such rudimentary efforts can, in fact, be dangerous. They often give the illusion of dealing with the problem of school violence when, in fact, they do little to alter students' views of life. The kids will continue to defend themselves down the hall, under the stairwell, or in the bathroom.

Denying Reality

Once schools recognize aggressive behaviors as normal responses to environmental violence, they can make this a topic of conversation in every class, as learning is occurring, as well as in special courses, assemblies, debates, and fund-raisers.
Too often there is a notion that teachers and students should not discuss, at least not at any length, behaviors that should not exist. By contrast, teachers for whom violence is a normal part of life expect but do not accept its intrusion. This expectation enables them to react in entirely different ways from those for whom violence is a scandal to be denied.
Admitting that a town has a problem with school violence may require adults to resist peer pressure—from the Chamber of Commerce or the Board of Realtors or the Tourist Bureau—just as young people must learn to resist pressure for the greater good of the community. Denying that gangs have arrived or that local youths have joined them facilitates gang consolidation at a time when locals could be educating the community.
Waiting until gang activity is undeniable may result in new rules designed to deter certain behaviors (“No wearing purple,” “gestures are prohibited”) without understanding the cultural context of the behaviors. Such rules, such as banning baseball caps or certain colors, will neither significantly reduce school violence nor prepare students for life in a democracy.

Removing Students

Students absolutely must not be allowed to hurt one another, of course. Hence, expulsion and suspension are designed to separate potentially dangerous students from potential victims. Most educators attuned to violent students, however, reject the rationale that these steps will benefit the punished student. Principals and teachers who increasingly suspend or expel large numbers of students may eventually realize that they are not, in fact, controlling and managing these students or teaching them anything. Instead, the students are controlling the system; they have wrested from it exactly what they wanted—release from classes and heightened peer approval (“No one messes with Arthur”).
Transfer of violent students from one school to another is only slightly more effective. First, this “dance of the lemons” merely moves the known troublemaker from one school where he or she is known to another where he or she may be unknown. This may benefit the student by offering a fresh start or enabling the student to maintain normal attendance. On the other hand, teachers in the new school may not know the student's history—information from which they may have benefited. Moreover, while the transfer may rob a violent student of the negative peer approval gained through a suspension, it does not provide the student with options for alternative behavior, for counseling, or for substance abuse help or family services. Finally, the student will suffer all the stresses of a move, which may cause additional depression, alienation, and disengagement, leading to further violence.

Corporal Punishment

School personnel may also resort to corporal punishment when dealing with uncooperative behavior. Ironically, teaching is the only profession in which it is still legal to beat the client. Nine states permit corporal punishment. Twenty-three states explicitly ban it, and in the remaining states, many—but not all—local school boards have banned the practice. Research indicates that corporal punishment is particularly damaging to children who are neglected or abused. It models behavior educators reject, while inadvertently giving students a badge of courage to wave before admiring peers.

Change Happens

The following development illustrates that change is possible. An Hispanic student had a secret love of cooking, but cooking was considered “sissy” by his friends. The student was in and out of trouble until a master chef, also Hispanic, took him in as an intern at the local four-star hotel. Now the student knows there's more profit in food than in weed.
In sum, what happens at school is pivotal, both to students and to our nation. Clearly, schools are not the cause of youth violence. They can, however, provide attractive options to violent behavior and give students a pattern for social behavior. Schools that forgo this opportunity waste what may be the only chance to help many students succeed productively in society and avoid a life of crime. For students in poverty especially, school may be their only out.

Prothrow-Stith, D. (1991). Deadly Consequences: How Violence is Destroying Our Teenage Population and a Plan to Begin Solving the Problem. New York: Harper Collins.

U.S. Department of Justice. (March 1994). Urban Delinquency and Substance Abuse, Initial Findings. NCJ 143454. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, pp. 22–27.

Vicky Schreiber Dill has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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