PREVENTING THE UNDERLYING CAUSES OF SCHOOL VIOLENCE
By Jeanne Gibbs
History despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived,
but if faced with courage need not be lived again.
– Maya Angelou
The recent epidemic of incredible shooting tragedies throughout schools in the United States has evoked a heartrending cry: ” Enough is enough! Violence must be prevented in our schools!” Although the awakening cry is bringing together parents, educators, legislators, community leaders, the media and students themselves to discuss the plea, meaningful solutions are not being highlighted because the phrasing of the plea to “prevent violence” is misleading. School communities struggling to determine what to do, need to redefine the problem into two very different questions.
First: How can violence be controlled in our schools?
Second: How can the underlying causes of violence be prevented?
Unfortunately, under the term “prevention”, the majority of school community planning groups suggest brigades of security guards, metal detectors, surveillance cameras, bomb-sniffing dogs, segregated classrooms (for identified high-risk students) tougher discipline/punishment policies and tenfold numbers of various school and community professionals. As necessary and appealing as outer control strategies may be, they cannot be considered as “prevention” because they do not address the pain or chaos that leads to disruptive behavior. Interviews with teenagers verify the meanness of the peer caste system in their schools. Disrespect of culture, race, socio-economic status, popularity, and academic achievement often culminate in name-calling, isolation, emotional and even physical abuse. This too is violent behavior! It should come as no surprise that years of such violence can result in alienation, despair, anger and thoughts of revenge, and more often than not, is sanctioned as the cultural norm over which schools have little control.
School communities across the nation trying to win the “war on drugs” have been caught in the same dilemma of trying “to prevent substance abuse” through expensive control of the few identified as “high-risk.” Intervention, treatment and incarceration have become the primary costly response. The after-thought and more frustrating issue was and still is “what is preventative?” In spite of massive funding flowing out to every city and community, the “drug war” has yet to be won. In fact, no epidemic, whether health or societal, has ever been turned around simply through control or treatment of those already identified as dysfunctional, sick, criminal or outcast…nor will outer control measures prevent the epidemic of school violence. The good news is that more than twenty years of prevention studies on student drug use did clarify for school communities what is and is not preventative! (Evans, 1997).
Prevention does not mean controlling fires already raging, but to care for the forest so well that fires do not start. Prevention to deter school violence, drug use or other youth problems means taking action long before young people are cruel to each other, long before isolation and alienation happens, long before any become angry, hopeless and lost. Pedro Noguera, author of Preventing and Producing Violence captures the solution well:
“The urban schools that I know that feel safe to those who spend their time there don’t have metal detectors or armed security guards, and their principals don’t carry baseball bats. What these schools do have is a strong sense of community and collective responsibility. Such schools are seen by students as sacred territory, too special to Be spoiled by crime and violence, and too important to risk one’s being excluded” (Noguera 1995).
This, you may recognize, epitomizes the culture (environment) within hundreds of schools using the process known as Tribes TLC® (Tribes Learning Community). Caring community cultures prevent problems by building social responsibility, mutual respect and belonging. Acting out behaviors become a thing of the past whenever cruel norms are replaced by appreciation, inclusion, and respect among the diversity of students. Then it is possible and probable that all students in a school will discover their unique strengths, talents, interests and resiliency to meet inevitable life challenges well.
How to transform schools into strong community cultures is no longer a mystery (Gibbs 1995). The Tribes approach is based on more than a thousand studies on children/youth development, resiliency, cooperative learning, school and classroom management and effective teaching methods. The synthesis reduces the multiple factors that lead not only to behavioral problems but poor school performance. No one gets lost in a Tribes school because everyone is included in supportive learning groups. All students gain a sense of being valued and respected for who they are, no matter their race, gender, culture, capabilities or socio-economic status.
What results are Tribe Learning Communities discovering?
An impressive school climate assessment among 6,707 students (3rd to 8th grade) and 275 teachers in the city/county of Honolulu indicates that in 94% of the schools (16 out of 17) indicators of mutual respect and appreciation for others were practiced to the highest measure of frequency. The high frequency is most significant towards preventing one of the most salient causes of later violence: namely, ridicule, name-calling and disrespect among peers (Ushijima and Brown 1999).
Teachers report the climate in classrooms is more settled, respectful, comfortable and productive. One Principal (whose school this year was recognized as a Distinguished Title I School by the a U.S. Department of Education) states,
“Now that we include everyone in a respectful and supportive environment I hear students and teachers speak respectfully with each other and are reducing conflicts.” She continues by saying, “Have our standardized test scores improved? Yes, they have.” (Freehan 1995)
The Honolulu Central Oahu School District Assessment is typical of reports from other city schools. Region VII Education Service Center in Kilgore, Texas, published the following graph on referrals by month for a high-risk area elementary school, where high levels of poverty, drug use and crime are prevalent.
In the year 1997-8 within six months after training teachers in the process of Tribes, referrals dropped 70%. For the whole year 1998-9 referrals decreased 57% (Schneider, Little & Watson 1999).
A large elementary school with a very difficult high-risk population in Waterloo, Iowa, demonstrated the same decrease of 57% in suspensions within the first 2 years of using the Tribes process. Perhaps most significant is that suspensions among their special education students went down 82%. The Principal’s report to the District predicts even more improvement.
“As the Tribes process becomes more ingrained in the teachers daily routine and in the children’s lives, we expect the number of suspensions to decline further. The staff is working hard to provide an enriched learning environment to assist in the area of behavior management…As children and staff become more of a community, our school will become a more enriching peaceful, respectful and safe environment”
It is important for prevention planners to know that:
Many schools are using the Tribes process as the basis of a wide range of funded programs: character education, substance abuse prevention, safe schools, social skills, resiliency, school climate, special education school community partnerships, peer leadership and school renewal.
The President’s Initiative on Race – One America in the 21st Century highlighted Tribes as a Promising Practice…” to advance the President’s vision of a stronger, more just and more united American community, offering opportunity and fairness for all Americans” (1998).
Security officers, metal detectors and surveillance hardware are not preventative in any way to stop the causes that lead to adolescent violence, anger and despair. They are last ditch control methods that possibly may sometimes stop the angry lost few bent on destroying the school society in which they never found themselves or support from peers and teachers. My deep conviction after a lifetime of work in education, youth development and systems change is that rather than focusing on “fixing kids” we need to fix the environments that impact their lives every day. Six or more hours in school each day in a strong and caring community culture are enough to help children discover a love of learning, self and social responsibility for their lives. We will fail if we choose simply to control student behavior assuming that is “the prevention of violence.” American education will become healed in a multitude of ways if we really “do prevention.” Prevention means developing cultures of caring – school environments that guarantee inclusion, respect and appreciation for and among all of the young people who come our way.
“We can nurture good children, now – and for a better future, we must.”
Evans, Alice and Bosworth, Kris. Building Effective Drug Education Programs. Research Bulletin, Center for Evaluation, Development and Research. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa, Dec.1997, V.19, p.1.
Freehan, Carole. Statement from Tribes, A New Way of Learning and Being Together by Jeanne Gibbs. Sausalito, CA: CenterSource Systems, 1995. p.200.
Noguera, Pedro. Preventing and Producing Violence: A Critical Analysis of Responses to School Violence. Boston, MA: Harvard Educational Review, V.65, No.2, 1995.
Schneider, Patricia; Little, Chris; Watson, Sonja. Reflecting on the Tribes Process Review, Longview ISD. Kilgore, TX: Region VII Education Service Center, 1999.
Taffel, Ronald. Nurturing Good Children Now. New York, N.Y.: Golden Books. Book jacket quote,1999.
Windsor, Christine. Tribes TLC ® Process Report. Waterloo Iowa: Waterloo Community School District, Longfellow Elementary School. 1997.
Ushijima, Teri and Brown, Laura. Analysis of Tribes Assessment for 17 Central Oahu District Schools. Honolulu: CenterSource Systems, 1999.