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September 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 1

Making Violence Unacceptable

We see it in the news every day. A teacher is assaulted in her classroom by an angry student. An 8th grade boy is tortured by a bunch of bullies. A teenage girl is shot by her jealous ex-boyfriend. Violence and fear of violence are very real problems in today's schools.
What can we do about it?
Should we get tough, following the lead of schools that have installed metal detectors in their entrances and that have security guards patrolling their halls?
Should we get smart, like those schools that have implemented programs for anger management, conflict resolution, and the like?
The Johnson Institute conducted a two-year study of violence in schools to gain a clear understanding of the problem of violence in schools and to develop an effective solution. The Respect and Protect: Violence Prevention and Intervention Program goes beyond one-dimensional approaches, paving the way for schools and communities to actually establish a safe learning environment for children.

What Is Causing Violence in Schools?

Research shows that children and adolescents today are more violent than ever. For the year 1995-96, California schools alone reported more than 22,000 violent crimes against persons, including battery and assault. In a national survey, nearly one in four students and 1 in 10 teachers said they have been victims of violence on or near school property. Many more incidents go unreported.
Some experts believe that because violent images have become so common in the media, children have become desensitized to violence.
Some say that violence is rooted in the social and economic changes that have swept the United States over the last two decades. Overworked and financially strapped parents vent their frustrations on their children, yelling at them and physically and emotionally abusing them. When children get that at home, and they see an increasing acceptance of violence in society, it's no wonder that so many of them resort to violence. They lack control of their actions; moreover, they lack any reason to want to control their actions. These children have grown accustomed to violence as a normal way of settling disputes or satisfying a desire for petty possessions—a jacket, a pair of sneakers, or a piece of jewelry. They believe they are entitled to use violence with slight provocation—being jostled, being called a name, losing a ball game, losing a boyfriend or girlfriend. They have not learned that nonviolence is better or that it is even a choice. Their experience tells them that violence is the most expedient and respect worthy means to achieve their ends.

Enabling Violence

  • Denial: "We don't have a problem with violence, but that other school does."
  • Minimization: "Name-calling and pushing and shoving are just normal behavior for kids."
  • Rationalization: "Kids have to learn to fight, to stand up for themselves."
  • Justification: "If we had a lower student-teacher ratio, we could do something about the violence."
  • Blame: "The parents aren't taking responsibility for their children's behavior."
  • Avoidance: "Violence in the school is for the administration and the police to deal with; I'm a teacher."
These defenses, in effect, allow violence to continue. As students see that the adults in the school either can't or won't protect them, they develop their own ways of coping with violence—blaming; protecting bullies or other perpetrators; hiding, ignoring, and "stuffing" their feelings of anger, fear, frustration, or guilt. Some victims conclude that they must be so flawed they deserve their mistreatment (otherwise, wouldn't adults intervene?). Ordinary students, seeing how much violence is tolerated, assume it's all right and begin to think they too are entitled to use it. Or they become victims themselves.
Even many educators who acknowledge the seriousness of the problem don't feel that they or the school system at large is equipped to intervene effectively. Therefore, they hesitate to confront perpetrators and comfort victims, and they decide not to report a violent incident because they expect the matter will be handled poorly or not at all, or because they're afraid of unfavorable reactions from parents or even retaliation from students.
Pervasive attitudes of entitlement among students and of tolerance among educators contribute to an "enabling system" that allows students to behave violently yet avoid experiencing the consequences of their behavior. That is not to say that such educators have ill intentions or don't care. Even when deliberately letting a student off the hook for violent behavior, an enabler is probably not aware that such tolerance harms the student in the long run and that it puts others in potential danger as well.
How can we make schools safe, supportive places for children's learning?

Respect and Protect

First, let's not fool ourselves with notions that a narrowly focused strategy against violence can work. "Get tough" measures, such as installing metal detectors, hiring guards, searching lockers, and instituting other police like procedures, make for good sound bites but have resulted in little, if any, long-term success.
"Get smart" instruction in anger management, conflict resolution, and peer mediation has produced some benefit, but still, violence is getting worse.
No simplistic or piecemeal effort will work.
The Johnson Institute has examined research from the United States and abroad, including using its own StudentView Survey; direct observations in elementary and secondary schools; and in-depth discussions with students, teachers, and principals. It is clear that an effective effort must be holistic and continuing—well organized, orderly, methodical, predictable—with all the parts working together. All school personnel must commit themselves to the effort and carry out their roles consistently. Parents must be involved.
  • It is founded on the principle that everyone is obliged to respect and protect the rights of others.
  • It promotes a systemwide ethos: Violence is not acceptable. We do not tolerate it here. Although it recognizes a continuum of violent behavior from mild to severe, it maintains that tolerating mild violence gives students the wrong signal, enabling more violence.
  • It focuses on stopping the enabling behaviors of staff, students, and parents that actually spawn and sustain the attitudes of entitlement to, and tolerance of, violent behaviors.
  • It provides a clear and unequivocal definition of violence so that there is no ambivalence or subjective interpretation about what behavior is unacceptable.
  • It distinguishes and addresses two types of violence—bully/victim violence and violence that stems from normal conflicts.
  • It is both adult centered and student centered. It contains a prevention component (Environmental Control by adults) and an intervention component (Choices, Consequences, and Contracts for students).
Descriptions of those two components follow.

Adult-Centered Environmental Control

The key to preventing violence lies in shaping children's beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors before violence becomes an automatic manifestation of their anger and a seemingly expedient and respectable way to resolve conflict or get what they want.
The first order of business is a revolutionary adjustment in adult beliefs, attitudes, and behavior toward violence. Adults must purge themselves, individually and collectively, of the attitudes that enable violence—such attitudes as "It's only the bad kids who are violent" or "That boy picks on younger kids because his dad picks on him. He can't help it."
Not just teachers, principals, and parents, but also coaches, counselors, cooks, and bus drivers must all agree to stop enabling and to act in a decisive and consistent way against violence. Adults usually react to student violence with a wide range of emotions—among them anger, fear, disgust, concern. How we identify and express these emotions to students is far more important than is immediately apparent, because it has long-lasting effects on students' perceptions of violence and school.
Many adults are surprised to learn that the most important thing they can do when confronting a misbehaving student is to voice concern about the inappropriate behavior and what students are doing to themselves and others.Jason, when you threaten to use violence against me or one of your classmates, it really scares me. I'm very concerned about what you're doing now and about what will become of you. There are other ways for you to get your needs met, and I'm willing to help you. But threatening people or using violence is not OK, and I won't tolerate it.
Even if such concern is initially rejected ("Who cares what you think?"), it can serve to defuse the situation, and the student knows that he or she has been heard and has other choices besides violence. It is very important for students to know our true feelings, including anger when appropriate.Angie, I get angry when you use your power to threaten me and your classmates. I respect your strength, but not when you use it to hurt people. You have other choices for handling your feelings, and I'm willing to teach you, but using violence is not acceptable, and I won't tolerate it.

Student-Centered Choices, Consequences, and Contracts

The second part of Respect and Protect is a supportive and nurturing intervention process—Choices, Consequences, and Contracts—that facilitates change in students who engage in violent behavior.
Choices and consequences. Students have many choices, but as a rule they must choose nonviolence. In Respect and Protect, violence is categorized in five graduated levels: (1) minor, (2) repeat, (3) serious, (4) severe, and (5) intractable. Each level entails corresponding staff actions, student consequences, and modes of contract (see fig. 1). After an incident of violence, it is important for the intervening adult to show to the offender(s) and all students the connection between the choice and the consequence and, whenever possible, teach them an alternative nonviolent action that would have been acceptable. If an offender, despite being shown the consequences, engages in escalated violent behavior, intervention increases accordingly until the student chooses to act nonviolently.

Figure 1. Respect & Protect Violence Prevention and Intervention Program: Overview of Choices, Consequences, and Contracts Intervention Process

Making Violence Unacceptable-table

Violence Level

Level One

Level Two

Level Three

Level Four

Level Five

ViolationRule Violation (Minor Infraction)Misuse of Power (Repeat Violation)Abuse of Power (Serious)Continued Abuse (Severe)Pathology (Intractable)
Staff ActionConfront behavior Stop violence Deal with problem File intervention report Review No Violence rule Suggest anger management, conflict resolution, peer mediation, or class meetingConfront behavior Stop violence Refer to office File intervention report Try to assess type of conflict Evaluate for talk with parentConfront behavior Stop violence Refer to office File intevention report Try to assess type of conflict Parent conference Suggest parenting programConfront behavior Stop violence Refer to office File intevention report Assess type of conflict Do psychosocial evaluation Hold parent conference Mandate parenting program Suggest family counselingConfront behavior Stop violence Refer to office File intevention report Follow psychosocial recommendations Hold parent conference Mandate parenting program Suggest intensive therapy or treatment for student
Student ConsequencesReview of activity for violence Parent notified (optional) Restitution Legal actionOffice referral Life Skills worksheet Parent notified Restricted until worksheet finished Restitution Legal actionOffice referral Parent notified Minimum time-out Violence Group Anger management Connections Empowerment Restitution Legal actionOffice referral Parent notified Maximum time-out Violence Group Reconections Restitution Legal actionOffice referral Parent notified Maximum time-out Placement into an alternative setting Restitution Legal action
ContractsVerbal PromiseSimple ContractTurf Contract ITurf Contract IIBottom-Line Contract
Students are place at Levels 1–5 depending on the frequency and severity of their violent behavior. Students may stay at a particular level as the situation warrants. Any violent act that is racial, sexual, involves physical fighting, or is committed against staff results in the student being placed immediately at Level 3 or higher. The program manual provides lists of behaviors that correlate with each level of violence.

Contracts. The adult reviews the no-violence rule with the rule breakers to make sure they understand that their action constitutes a violation. Rule breakers enter into a contract acknowledging that they understand what they have done and that they will change their behavior. The mode of contract ranges from a verbal promise to a bottom-line contract, again depending on the level of violence.
Most students who make a verbal promise work hard to keep it. Many will relapse once or twice and try again. Habitual failure, though, indicates that a student either is not honoring the contract or is unable to stop acting violently. Either way, it's time to renegotiate the contract.
Violence Intervention Reports. The intervening adult files a report on the incident, to be kept in a file (preferably in a computer database) under the rule breaker's name. The adult should check the Violence Intervention Reports to find out whether the student has had previous incidents reported by other staff and thus determine whether the incident at hand is a first-time or rare occurrence or the latest manifestation of an established behavioral pattern. That information may be needed in determining the level to which the student should be assigned.
Violence Review Worksheet. The violators are required to complete a Violence Review Worksheet. As they describe their actions in writing, violent students see more clearly the relationship between choices and consequences and the importance of making good choices. The worksheet is attached to the Violence Intervention Report in the student's file.
More consequences. The intervening adult notifies parents of the incident involving their child. If that adult cannot provide an eyewitness account of what happened, a person who can do so will be made available to answer parents' questions. The contents of these telephone conversations will be included in the student's Violence Intervention Report. If parents can't be reached by phone, the student must take home a Parent Notification Letter with copies of the Violence Intervention Report and the student's Violence Review Worksheet and bring them back the next day, each signed by a parent, before reporting to class. Those who don't fulfill the requirement must be dealt with, or they'll never change. Some schools have excluded noncomplying students from all classes and school activities and placed them in a suspension room.
Restitution is required. The offending student must apologize to the victim to restore the person's self-esteem and make restitution for any bodily, emotional, and monetary damages. Parents cannot do this in their child's stead because that would enable the offender to avoid experiencing the proper consequences of violence. If monetary damages are exceedingly high, the school and the parents of those involved may need to confer about the best way for the child to make restitution.
If a student breaks a law, the school may have to assist entry into criminal or civil proceedings. Police and prosecutors are usually happy to cooperate with a school in enforcing its Respect and Protect program when they understand its nature and scope. They see the program's potential for reducing crime and other violence in the community. They're well aware that today's problem students could become tomorrow's hard-core criminals unless someone intervenes quickly, firmly, and consistently.
For those offenders who don't get the message. Offenders at Level One, for example, who commit a more severe act or continue to commit minor offenses will get bumped to Level Two or higher—even if they regret what they've done. Whether or not they show regret, they demonstrate that they are not being moved by the relatively mild consequences of Level One, and so they will get a more stringent level of intervention. If they continue to rise through the levels, they will eventually exhaust all possible recourses. At that point, it becomes clear that they need assistance beyond a school's ability to deliver.
The Respect and Protect program is a means to sort out those students who can be helped in the school setting and those who cannot. It is a systematic approach by which schools can counteract violence—not in a panicky, haphazard, police like, or punitive way (which adds fuel to the fire), but in a structured, humane, and supportive manner that facilitates genuine change.

Level One Scenario

Minor infractions typically stem from a student's immaturity, lack of self-control, or lack of skill in managing anger and resolving conflicts. For example, a girl, seeking to get a boy's attention, pushes the boy into his locker, not meaning to hurt him but bruising him nonetheless. Neither student seems very upset about it. When the adult intervenes, however, they get the message that pushing is not acceptable and won't be tolerated. The adult then talks privately with the girl about appropriate ways to get the boy's attention, such as asking him to sit with her at lunch or walk with her on the way home from school.
The main purpose of the intervention in Level One is to educate students about the no-violence rule and put them on notice that the school means business. A teacher reacting to a classroom incident might guide the parties in the Three-Step Method of Conflict Resolution—think about it, talk about it, try to work it out—or might refer them directly to peer mediation. If an incident affects the rest of the class, the teacher calls a meeting to use the experience as a learning opportunity reinforcing the no-violence message and teaching life skills. Finally, the teacher tries to identify and change situational factors that contributed to the violence. For example, students who sit near each other but can't get along will be separated.

Levels Two Through Five

Level Two is for repeated, but not severe incidents of violence. Underlying this kind of intervention is the assumption that the student wants to change and will change, if given more help.
Levels Three and Four are for substantially more serious incidents of violence: physical assault or battery, racial slurs, sexual harassment, extortion, or destruction of school property. These interventions provide more restrictive contracts, time-outs, intensive counseling, and support group involvement. Levels Three and Four are effective with students who have trouble controlling their tempers, with some bullies, and with students whose violence is more thoughtless and impulsive than intentional.
Despite earlier intervention measures, some students are simply unable or unwilling to change and require Level Five intervention. These students are often chronic bullies whose behavior is intractable. For example, Big John, a high school senior, was a star football player and wrestler who enjoyed a privileged status among students and staff. He was also a bully who, along with his henchmen, ran a successful protection racket of extorting money from weaker students. John felt he was immune to any disciplinary action and went quickly through four levels of intervention, violating all contract agreements until he was stopped in his tracks by Level Five intervention. The purpose of Level Five intervention is to minimize the harm that students like Big John can do to other students, the staff, and the school's environment and morale.
At Level Five, the school gives the student a Bottom Line Contract and "holds" the student until an appropriate placement can be made within or outside the school system. By now, habitual violence has reached crisis proportions. The first staff actions are routine: Confront and stop the behavior, refer the student to the office, and file a Violence Intervention Report. At this time, the office must notify the parents and arrange for a face-to-face conference to discuss what finally must be done. That appointment should allow a psychological evaluation, with recommendations, by a qualified professional. Or a second conference may be arranged after the school has analyzed the professional's recommendations.
During the conference, the school cannot allow the student to interact with other students, or even be on school grounds, without a school-appointed adult escort (usually a staff person or a volunteer), until the student has demonstrated a commitment to nonviolence.
The parents are strongly advised to seek intensive therapy for the student and placement in a treatment program. The parents must participate in the school's parenting program, such as a class for parents of emotionally disturbed children. In some cases, counseling is recommended for the parents, if it's possible within their budget.
As for student consequences, the maximum allowable out-of-school suspension provides time for the school to make plans for the student and meet with the parents.
The school then seeks an alternative educational setting for the student. (If it's another school in the district, the Level Five intervention plan is continued.) The alternative may be homebound instruction provided by the district, a move to another district, or an educational program with social services by a contracted agency.
The latest offense, considered along with the "Violent Incidents" file and school board policy, may warrant expulsion from school. But simply turning the student out onto the street is not likely to help.
If the only choice is to keep the student in school, severe restrictions apply. The student may no longer move anywhere—even to the restroom—without a designated adult escort. There may be no unsupervised interaction with any other student. This amounts to an in-school suspension until the school year ends or until there is strong willingness to change. The student must satisfy a contract before the privileges of regular attendance and normal activities can be restored.

A Word of Encouragement

Violence is a growing problem in schools. Conventional wisdom says that children and adolescents are influenced more by their peers than by adults. Not necessarily so. Students expect adults to be responsible and control the school environment. Adults want to do something about school violence, but many don't realize the power they themselves have to effect positive change, or they feel that support for such change is inadequate or misguided. Respect and Protect provides a strategic framework within which they are enabled to effectively care, so they can stop enabling violence.
When caring adults firmly state that violence will not be tolerated, and then act consistently to show that they mean it, students adopt that value, too. Their new feelings of safety are supported by admiration and respect for adults who say what they mean and mean what they say.
Respect and Protect is not so much about controlling what happens as about how we choose to respond to what happens. When we agree on how to respond to a situation, and when we follow through consistently, the message is clear—and the effect on students is galvanizing. It is very possible to transform a violence-prone school into a safe, supportive, and nurturing learning place where everyone feels protected and respected.
End Notes

1 The 1995-96 California Safe Schools Assessment Report, California Department of Education, 1997.

2 The 1995-96 California Safe Schools Assessment Report, California Department of Education, 1997.

3 The Respect and Protect® Program Manual provides copies of all necessary forms, worksheets, contracts, letters, and instructions for how to use them. Available from the Johnson Institute. Price: $99.95.

Carol Remboldt has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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