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September 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 1

In Alberta / When Violence Came to Our Rural School

One school's get-tough approach to early incidents of violence garnered community support and helped restore safety to the building.

This isn't a story of planned, thoughtful change. It isn't a blueprint for other schools to follow. It's a story of how intimidation and bullying entered a junior high school in a rural area of Alberta, Canada, and how the school responded to restore the core values of our community: safety and security. Our story is as much about how schools become unsafe as it is about strategies for making schools safer.

Murphy's Law: Anything That Can Go Wrong ...

When I arrived as an assistant principal at Lacombe Junior High School in the late '80s, it was a junior high not unlike many across rural North America. Our building was outdated (it was constructed as a high school in 1948), the student population small, and the staff stable. What I remember most about that first year was the phrase, "We'll do it the same as last year."
The seeds of change were being sown, however. Over the next few years, construction began for a new $7.2 million facility. Central Alberta was growing, and population projections indicated that more than one school might have to be built in the community to accommodate the students. Our new state-of-the-art facility proved to be an excellent home. Our same-as-last-year approach to school management, however, was not in tune with the changing realities in education.
Demands for change were coming from many directions—the Alberta government, Alberta's Department of Education, the business community, educational researchers, parents, teachers, and students. It was obvious that we needed to adapt our philosophy from a 1970s' approach to junior high education to the 1990s' form of middle school education. The fundamental changes in the organizational structure of our school affected everyone. Workloads increased as we sought to cope with new curriculum and new demands.
From 1993-94 through 1994-95, our student population shot up from 390 to 540. We did our best to adapt while construction began to expand our building. More students meant the hiring of five new teachers, all of whom were new to the profession. Also during this time our senior secretary was promoted to the central office and our second assistant principal went on maternity leave. We had to adjust to make up for the absence of two important members of our staff.
The makeup of our student population also changed. Community growth resulted in increased numbers of at-risk students. In the past, students leaders had emerged from academic or athletic groups in the 9th grade. That year, a new leadership group, "the skaters," surfaced from the 8th grade.
It was clear very early that this group did not share our values of what constitutes a good school. Intimidation and bullying were suddenly in, and rules and respect were definitely out. These youngsters, whose identities seemed to revolve around skateboarding, adopted similar dress and hair styles. Their strong bond created a major change in our school's climate.
I'm sure the educational research will verify what we found out the hard way. Major structural changes in school programs, inexperienced new teachers, changes in administrative staff, overcrowded conditions, increasing numbers of at-risk kids, and a lack of positive student leadership are all major factors in creating an unsafe school. Had we faced only one or two of these factors, I believe we would have adjusted fine—everyone was working hard and doing a great job—but the combination was devastating.

Zero Tolerance

Early in the 1994-95 school year, an incident occurred that caused us to take immediate action. About 20 kids gathered outside the gate leading to the school grounds. A solitary figure attempted to pass. The student grabbed at his lunch and instinctively pulled it back protectively.
Suddenly, the bully pinned him up against the fence and punched him in the face. I shouted, stopping a second punch as I arrived on the scene at a dead run. Seeing that I was visibly upset, the bully wondered what was my problem!
These types of events were happening, if not regularly, far too often. For the first time in my career, I was seeing the effect of gang behavior. In the past, our school had always been reluctant to suspend or expel students because those responses didn't address the problems of the child. Our impulse had always been to "save" these youngsters. The increase in violent incidents, however, reminded us that other students also needed saving.
They had a right to a safe school, and we had a responsibility to make it safe immediately. The administration team met that morning in September to address the bullying incident. Our principal suggested instituting a zero-tolerance policy toward harassment and violence. Our team supported the idea. Because we were concerned not only about fights and bullying, but also about the effects of crowds, we expanded the consequences of the policy to include those people who were "responsible for the promotion of violence."
Before the end of the day, we had a zero-tolerance policy in place and had notified all students that any violations would result in automatic suspensions or expulsions. (We notified their parents a few days later via the school newsletter.) Top-down mandated policy wasn't exactly the vogue in educational circles, so we were prepared to take criticism. I heard none.
It took only two days for the policy to be tested. Two extremely unlikely 7th graders squared off over "pogs" (those collectible, silver-dollar size cardboard discs). We held to our decision and suspended them. Within two weeks, changes began taking place. A few of the major bullies "chose" to make other arrangements for schooling, as they could clearly see that they were headed for expulsion. Incidents of bullying became less frequent and,probably, less obvious. A few weeks later, I was eating lunch in the staff room when a teacher on supervision duty rushed in and said, "Matt is in the school." Matt was an angry, violent, intimidating former student who had chosen to attend another school rather than be expelled. After finding Matt in the washroom with some of his old friends, I demanded that he leave immediately. As I followed him to the exit door, an eerie silence settled on the hallway. A junior high school hallway is never silent at noon.
I'll never forget the look on the faces of those students as they watched the events unfold. You could feel the tension in the air. Just the presence of this angry young man had transformed the atmosphere in our school. It reminded me of where we had been. We couldn't ever go back there again.

Our Moment of Truth

I once attended a workshop in which the presenter talked about the moment of truth—a time, often caused by crisis, when the integrity and reputation of a person or institution is on the line. For us, this moment came on a Friday afternoon in the spring of 1995.
Our principal received a phone call from an angry parent. Five boys had dragged her son out of the school, where he had been beaten up by a sixth boy, one of their friends who was waiting outside. After getting the details and the names of the individuals involved, the principal called me in for a caucus. We decided to call the parents of the boys who were identified. Our message was clear: If, after investigation, we found that the allegations were true, we would recommend that their sons be expelled from school.
The reactions of the parents were mixed, but I'll never forget one father's question: "What did that boy do to cause those kids to react that way?" What he had done was refuse to fight, and the gang had decided that if he wasn't going to fight, he was at least going to the fight.
We recommended expulsion of all six students, and at the student review hearing, four of the six expulsions were upheld. Although it was an emotional time, ultimately I believe the decision was a strong statemen about the public's intolerance toward gang incidents. Community members supported our get-tough stance to return the school to safety.
That incident served as a catalyst for teachers to take ownership of the situation. At the next staff meeting, bottom-up support for making the school a safer place began to swell. Teachers unanimously volunteered to provide additional supervision after school to prevent further incidents from occurring or at least provide early intervention. They also formed a task force to study violence and bullying in our school.
Out of this task force came two committees. One committee researched the topic of violence and violence prevention programs and wrote lesson plans for use in our newly formed advisory classes. Antiviolence became a common theme for each advisory class, and the program reached every student in the school. The second committee coordinated activities throughout the school that promoted a nonviolence message. Through these efforts, we hoped to increase school spirit and build good relationships among students. The antiviolence program, which was officially instituted at Lacombe Junior High School in September of 1995, involved four important elements: a zero-tolerance policy, increased supervision, antiviolence education, and a focus on building relationships.

The Rest of the Story

When school opened for the 1995-96 year, we made a strong statement by purchasing video cameras for supervision. The first day, we caught the initial meeting of the skaters on tape as they assembled on school property. We suspended six of the students for smoking. This symbolic, yet important, action sent two messages to the student body: (1) we would be vigilant about supervising the school grounds, and (2) there would be no safety in numbers. Again, we expected some criticism for using video cameras, but we received nothing but messages of support. In truth, the cameras have not been necessary for supervision since late October.
Introducing the advisory program has also been a key ingredient in the climate change at our school. The program has provided a forum for building relationships with students and for disseminating our antiviolence program throughout the school. In addition, the program has given students opportunities to take ownership in the school through special activities for the student body or community. For example, one of our advisory classes organized a Santas Anonymous campaign. The students collected donations and forwarded the toys to a local service club, which, in turn, dispensed the toys to needy families throughout the district.
Thus far this year, our multifaceted approach to combating bullying, gang action, and violence has been extremely successful. Incidents of fighting are rare, and the number of fights has gone down significantly. Expulsions, suspensions, and reported incidents of bullying have also decreased.
It would be a mistake to credit the successful change in our school's climate strictly to our antiviolence program. Construction was completed on the new section of the school, easing the overcrowded conditions. The return of our assistant principal from maternity leave and the growing experience of our secretarial staff has the office functioning at very efficient levels. Teachers are more comfortable with program changes in the school and are well beyond the performance dip that often accompanies reorganization. Our new teachers now have a year's experience and are all doing excellent jobs.
  • Be proactive in dealing with student violence. If violence is not a problem at your school, do not assume that it cannot become a problem. Make safety part of your mission and values. Have a clear policy in place, and notify all stakeholders about it.
  • Use a multifaceted approach to dealing with student violence. No one factor contributes to bullying and other acts of harassment or violence.Zero-tolerance policies, therefore, are not enough. Educators need to increase supervision throughout the school, teach values of tolerance and respect, increase student ownership, and build interpersonal relationships in the school. Consider involving other agencies such as the police department in your plan.
  • Form an advisory program. If your junior high school or middle school does not have an advisory program, take steps to implement one. Sergiovanni talks about the importance of the school becoming "a moral community." He cites numerous studies where teaching values, fostering acceptance, and building relationships are essential elements in building effective schools. Advisory classes provide the perfect forum for these types of activities.
  • Be aware of group dynamics. In our situation, a number of the students who caused trouble were reasonable, articulate young people when dealt with on a one-to-one basis. In a group situation, however, they became less than reasonable and dangerous to other students. When planning strategies to deal with intimidation and bullying, be sure to look at the effects of group behavior.
  • When in the middle of a crisis, take action, don't philosophize. I understand that many educators would have definite problems with some of the top-down decisions that we made during our year of turmoil.Establishing a bottom-up consensus about antiviolence policies and procedures would have been preferable. If you have a mission statement and goals that include a belief in a safe school, however, you'll probably receive support for taking swift actions. We received very little criticism from the public for enacting harsh consequences for violent actions. The harshest criticism often comes from perceived inaction rather than action.
  • Remember that good reputations take many years to build and only a short time to tarnish. We are doing a better job in dealing with problems of violent behavior than any period during my seven years at this school.Community perceptions about bullying in our school, however, have not been quick to disappear. There is still negative talk in the community.Restoring our reputation is proving to be as big a challenge as restoring order in the school.
End Notes

1 Matt is a pseudonym.

2 T. J. Sergiovanni, (1995), The Principalship: A Reflective Practice Perspective, 3rd ed, pp. 63-75,. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon).

C. Del Litke has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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