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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
February 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 5

A Humane Approach to Reducing Violence in Schools

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By creating a humane superhighway—a merger of the technological and the benevolent—schools can establish a foundation for reducing violence.

Human violence against humans is not a post-modern, 20th century invention. Genocides, serial killings, thefts, and gang wars terrified our prehistoric ancestors. Our modern media are no more violent than pretechnology art and literature. The Grimm Brothers' fairy tales are explicitly violent, and Edgar Allan Poe's tales of terror frightened us without the mention of assault weapons.
So violence isn't new, and some data, in fact, indicate a decrease over the last 10 years in both the number and percentage of murders, muggings, robberies, and rapes (“Crime and Statistics” 1994). Why, then, is there a sudden emergency, a seemingly hysterical outcry, to end violence, and why are we more terrified than ever before?
Because violence today feels different—more heartless, more senseless, and more random. The phenomenon of “It won't happen to me” has been replaced with “They're after me.”

A New Kind of Violence

Our actions and feelings are motivated by our perceptions of violence. Statistics do little to calm our fears when the evening news reports a gruesome murder or a shooting in an elementary school. Our perceptions are fed by an unrestrained media, both in entertainment and news, that drives a continual escalation of sensationalism, generating new levels of horror as we become satiated to old ones.
If the general numbers do not reveal an overall increase in violent incidents, they do tell us that violence against children is rapidly increasing. Can it be true that one teenager is killed by a gunshot wound every half hour? Are somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 guns being brought to school each day, according to some estimates? Are there really gangs in Smallville?
Violence is more random and senseless than ever. Whereas at one time a person might have been murdered for money, now it might be for wearing the wrong hat. It seems as if we are all wearing targets on our backs, even inside our once safe homes. Headlines of drive-by shootings and kidnappings of children from their bedroom windows have not only spearheaded calls for tougher laws, but are increasing our need to safeguard ourselves from the bad guys. We no longer freely walk our streets or stroll in our parks. Our welcome mats have been replaced by security systems and weapons.
Even worse, the bad guys don't need to infiltrate our neighborhoods. They now live next door to us, or in the same house. They are us.

The Road Back

When social problems reach Main Street, schools are asked to fix them. Why should educators add violence to the myriad other social ills we are asked to cure? Children in schools at all grade levels seem to be more disruptive, with less internal control. Fighting is the only way that some students know how to maintain dignity, win the respect of peers, or to be successful. Even if most students are not chronically violent, those who are cause fear and disruption for everyone else. What can we do about the problem if our society itself seems powerless? We cannot do everything.
But we better do something. The world is scrambling to build an information superhighway. Information access is the currency of the new age, and the widening gap between those who have access and those who don't may increase the propensity for violence. And yet information has never reduced man's inhumanity to man: knowledge has not stopped bigotry, racism, hatred, crime, or violence. Neither has intelligence, technology, nor wealth. Unless we build a humane superhighway that transcends the information superhighway, greed, selfishness, and violence will continue to increase at breakneck speed.
Technology might create better security systems, but it can't stop an irrational man with a gun who shoots at students from a distant hill. We need a humane highway to guide us and to teach us how to get along with one another. The curriculum of the future will either be a merger of the technological and the humane, or we will come to a rapid dead end.

What Can Schools Do?

Schools are clearly suffering from the devastating fear and loss of control that violence leaves in its wake. There is no learning in an environment permeated by fear. Random student violence and continual disruptive behavior generate a school malaise fed by hopelessness and helplessness.
Although many schools are hiring guards, adding permanent police officers to their staffs, and installing metal detectors, they can and must do more. It is not enough to fortify the gates of the school. We must transform schools into places that teach children to control our violent nature and to change the self-destructive path we are speeding down out of control.
  1. Teach students alternatives to violence. Students behave violently to express anger or frustration, to show off, or to protect themselves. Throughout their lives, children have learned how to express their feelings by observing their parents and teachers, as well as the Power Rangers, Roseanne, Bart, and Beavis and Butt-Head. The more tools students have to choose from to meet their needs and to express their feelings, the greater the likelihood they will use them.Skills in conflict resolution, peer mediation, anger control, and Discipline With Dignity are examples of existing programs that teach alternatives to violence. Teachers can teach their students positive skills both for preventing disruptive events and for dealing with the consequences of violent encounters.Example: After a student hits another student for calling him a name, a teacher might say, “Let me show you how to tell a bully to stop picking on you” and, then, teach a nonviolent assertive alternative such as saying, “I don't like it when you call me names.”
  2. Teach students how to make more effective choices. Once students have additional skills, they need to know when to use them and how to choose among them. Every time a student breaks a rule or behaves disruptively, he or she should be offered both firm limits and significant choices. Firm limits show students that we mean business about what we will and will not accept. They need significant choices to practice the skill of choosing and to feel that they are in control of their lives. The more that violence contributes to students' feelings of helplessness, the more they need choices and control to counter that helplessness. Further, the more students believe they can make real choices that affect their lives, the more they may feel capable of selecting nonviolent alternatives.Example: When giving a student a time out, most teachers say something similar to, “Take a five-minute time out.” That message has a limit but no choice. Instead, try: “You have chosen to give yourself a time out (limit). Come back when you are ready to learn (choice).”
  3. Model for students alternative expressions of anger, frustration, and impatience. School personnel— including teachers, administrators, counselors, lunchroom monitors, and school bus drivers—need to model the same choices and behaviors that they want students to carry out. No student can ever do what he or she has never seen. By using the same skills and making positive choices, we show students that real people use these strategies and that they work.Example: When a student says something derogatory, teachers often take it personally and fight back with sarcasm or removal. In so doing, they validate the very behavior they are trying to change in the student. It is better to respond in the same manner that you want the student to do when the student is angry: “I don't like it when you make fun of me, but I can understand that you might be angry. Let's talk later and see if we can work it out.”

Build Bridges, Not Walls

Even more important than programmatic solutions, the foundation for reducing violence must be thoroughly grounded in values. We need to transform every school into a community that actively demonstrates, models, and advocates in every way the spirit, courage, and commitment to the humane highway: all life is precious and needs to be respected, protected, and valued. We need to build bridges, not walls.
  • School is a place where people feel safe.
  • School is a place where people learn.
  • School is a place where prejudice, bigotry, or sexism will not be tolerated.
  • School is a place where each and every individual has value and worth.
  • School is for all—students, teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals—not just the best, the most well behaved, or the members of any one group.
Four major approaches lead to a humane highway.
  1. Reduce cynicism. Nothing breeds violence faster than cynical attitudes. The opposite of cynicism is hope. When we are hopeful, there is less reason to hurt and more to lose by choosing hurtful behavior. Nonviolent schools are characterized by a strong sense of hope based on a belief that people matter, the future matters, and that individual choices have consequences that matter.Hopeful attitudes, like cynicism, are pervasive and have the greatest impact when everyone in the community shares them. Administrators can set a positive tone for their schools by modeling hopeful attitudes, implementing programs that target negative attitudes, and counseling cynical teachers. Administrators should treat teachers in the same way and with the same dignity that they want teachers to treat students.Other ways that administrators can encourage a tone of optimism in their schools are to trust students and teachers, encourage new ideas, advocate against any program or strategy that interferes with learning, and walk the fine line between welcoming all parents to participate in school decision making and giving in to unreasonable demands of parent groups with political or social agendas.Example: A teacher decides to change a detention that teaches that school is a punishment, thus interfering with motivation to learn, to a learning opportunity by making sure the student learns a skill to solve the original problem.
  2. Welcome all students. Recently I met a 14-year-old student with orange hair, rings in her nose and lips, a gangbanger boyfriend, and a police record. She told me she was not intimidated by threats of detention, suspensions, or calls home. Yet students and teachers in her school are intimidated by her threats to bury them alive if they get in her face. Maybe the school can get rid of her, but it cannot get rid of everyone who refuses to be a model student. And even if the school does remove her from its campus, it cannot remove her from society.When I asked this student if she listens to any of her teachers, she replied, “Yes, those who treat me like I belong, those who believe in me, those who care.” By welcoming all students and communicating that we care about them, we have a better chance of influencing their behavior than if we threaten them.Welcoming students does not mean simply greeting them; it means continually treating them as if they belong in the school, as if we want them there because we really do. It's easy to welcome students who do what we want. Far more difficult and more important is how we welcome students when they don't do what we want. Until we convey to all our students that we care about them and value them all equally, then we will never extinguish the root causes of violence: cynicism, —alization of significant groups of people, and the false belief that stronger deterrents against a stereotyped them will make us safer.Schools can no longer create and support an underclass of —alized students. Of course, this does not mean that we should tolerate or accept all behaviors. Every rule violation requires effective consequences, especially those that teach alternative behaviors. Every time students break a rule, respond violently, or are disruptive, we must include in our intervention the sincere message that we still want them in the classroom and that we want them to continue to learn.Example: When a student is late, a corrective response is needed. We show we don't welcome that student by saying, “For every minute of time you are late, you owe five minutes after school. Maybe that will teach you.” A more welcoming response is: “I'm not happy that you are late for class, and we will meet after school to find ways to correct this problem, but I am glad you showed up. I missed you.”
  3. Replace discipline based on rewards and punishments with values. Rewards and punishments do not teach the importance of values or the use of values in decision making. People with choices, skills, and positive role models still commit violent acts. Before a different choice can be made, an individual needs a powerful desire to do so. Only strong values motivate us to control our naturally violent nature. We must know in our minds, our hearts, and our spirits that hurting others is wrong.We never want children to learn that they can do what they want as long as they don't get caught (a punishment orientation) or that they should perform a kind deed only if there's something in it for them (a reward orientation). These tools are traditionally used to control behavior, but because they set such a minimum standard and because they satiate so quickly, they may actually escalate incidents of violence. Corporal punishment only gives credibility to hitting as a solution to problems. It does not and never has taught values or right from wrong. A preferable approach is to have children negotiate and work problems out with one another.The best way to set up a value-based discipline program is to develop principles (values) prior to rules. (“School is a place where people feel safe” and the other educational values listed earlier are a good starting point.) Principles are general, not enforced, and provide reasons for following rules. Rules define behavior, not attitudes; are enforced; and work only when based on principles. Consequences are based on rules.Example: “Be respectful” is not a rule because it is an attitude. A better principle might be, “When you're angry, say what's bothering you.” It cannot be enforced, but it can provide motivation to follow any rule based on it.
  4. Ask students to contribute. Students have their own view of what violence is, what it costs them, and what should be done about it. Thus, another way to create a humane highway is to ensure that the voices of all students are heard—not only the “good ones,” but also the toughies, the gangbangers, the disruptive, the withdrawn, and the unmotivated.Teaching students the meaning of values also means helping them to find humanity within themselves so that they can care about others. Invite students to be part of the plan to reduce violence. Include them as instructors, leaders, or decision makers. Let them run their own antiviolence campaigns, organize assemblies, create posters, and be guest speakers in other classes. Students need to realize that school is not something that is done to them but, rather, for them and with them. When the school is a community that values the voices of all who attend, it validates a nonviolent inclusive atmosphere where everyone is welcome.Example: A school district outside of Chicago asked its students to be involved in reducing violence. They filled the halls with anti-violence posters, put on an assembly, and invented the following slogan to say when tensions got high between students: “It's okay to walk away.”

A Leap of Faith

Being human means that we must face violence, but it does not mean that we have to act violently. The unique qualities of the human species provide us with hope. This hope requires a leap of faith—faith that being human is more than how we are defined by scientific findings and biological equations. Faith and hope are spiritual values, and it is in the realm of faith and hope, the spiritual dimension, that we will find the key to our survival. Each and every human life is precious. Each deserves to be safe and free. Each must be validated, not violated.
Many people are reluctant to accept that teaching in a spiritual way will change the course of our violent history. Cynicism is easy when life is cheap. Many advocate a simplistic and self-destructive alternative: punish those who violate the law, lock up forever those who continually violate the law, and kill the most violent among us. What might happen if we build bridges instead of walls, and invite one another to join us in our quest for living together?
To paraphrase the words of Yanosz Korczak, who sacrificed his own life to comfort his students as they were being sent from the Warsaw Ghetto to the death camp at Auschwitz: “Children are not to be valued for their potential. They are to be valued as humans in the here and now.” Now more than ever, we must teach our students the skills of nonviolent behavior—but, even more important, we must let them know that they are valued.

“Crime and Statistics.” (November 13, 1994). San Francisco Examiner, p. A14.

Lifton, B. J. (1988). King of Children: A Portrait of Yanosz Korczak. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Richard L. Curwin (1944–2018) was an author, trainer, speaker, and experienced education practitioner who worked with teachers, administrators, and parents throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, South America, and the Middle East.

His works explored issues of student discipline, motivation, and behavior and classroom management. He served as a 7th grade educator, a teacher of emotionally disturbed children, and a college professor.

Curwin and his colleague, Allen N. Mendler, founded Discipline Associates and created the Discipline with Dignity program.

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