Looking in All the Wrong Places to Cure Violence in Our Schools – Joshua Vogel
School violence is an issue threatening the livelihood and safety of every student in our schools today. It is present system-wide, whether in public or private schools, and nationwide, without exception (1). Rather than creating a single unified program to prevent violent behaviors, school systems rely heavily on a combination of already existing programs and institutions to address problem behaviors as they occur (2).
The definition of school violence is broad but can be thought of as encompassing all illegal and inappropriate behaviors that take place while a student is in school, or in today’s world, even outside of it when cyberbullying is taken in to account. The CDC defines violence in general as: “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against another person or against a group or community that results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation” (3). Violence has many forms, primarily physical, sexual, and verbal abuse, and a wide range of outcomes from minor injuries to death for both the perpetrator and the victim.
The prevalence of school violence in the United States is up to some debate, but most would agree that after coming down during the 1970s and 1980s, levels have remained consistent (4). As recently as 2005-2006, 38% of schools reported crimes to the police, 23% of students reported gangs at their schools, and 10% of teachers claimed that they were threatened by their students during the course of the year, meaning that while rates of crime may have decreased, it is still very common in our schools (3). And while the crime levels may be static, the negative outcomes of the violence (serious injury and death) are rising (1).
The outcomes of school violence are also many. Obviously, as mentioned before, injury and death are the most direct result of school violence. These two horrible realities can be followed by negative mental health outcomes, including persistent mental illness, which can remain much beyond the school years. Such mental health outcomes can include depression, fear, and low self-esteem (3). In comparison to physical injuries, which will likely heal with time, mental illness may need to be treated over the course of a lifetime, meaning that school violence is lingering and costly.
Social issues also arise from school violence. Principal among these are missed school and higher school dropout rates among victimized students (3). Students who miss a day of school may fall behind on learning critical skills that will be useful for them in life, like reading or arithmetic, not to mention higher-level learning that is never received when a student drops out. These individuals do not contribute as much to our society and economy, and are more likely to commit crimes themselves later on in life (5).
Our nation’s disorganized campaign against school violence is critically flawed on three accounts, which prevents us from making major strides in reducing the negative outcomes associated with these behaviors. The foremost intervention, implementation of curricula geared towards anti-violence education, is a mishmash of different social theories that have not been shown to have an effect on school violence. Second, many of the laws aimed at preventing and punishing school violence miss the mark and punish the offenders instead of addressing the heart of the issue. Third, few interventions take into account students’ physical and social environments when striving to curb youth violence despite the existence of empirically supported methods for doing exactly that.
In terms of educating our children about the dangers of violent behavior, schools can fall into three categories: schools which have developed their own anti-violence curriculum and implemented it system-wide, schools which have purchased or adopted an anti-violence curriculum from a vendor or other school district, and schools that don’t openly address the issue in the classroom setting. Schools in the first category are few in number, and even then, they most often merge these programs with the school’s overall health program (6). However, since our school health systems are already overburdened, focus on violence prevention often takes a back seat to the other responsibilities of school nurses and health officials. These direct programs are not incorporated into the classroom curriculum, because they are seen as not contributing to the overall knowledge of the students, when, in fact, it is shown that violence affects students’ performance (7).
While in-house system-wide prevention programs may be scarce, there is any number of stand-alone curriculums a school can choose from if it would like to do so. Many schools (more than 80% at all levels of education in 2006) use one of these programs, which combine skills instruction, group therapy, role-playing and more to try and impress on youths that violence is not the answer (6).
The problem with many of these programs is that their efficacy has not been studied (8). Implementing one of these programs is essentially a shot in the dark and could be criticized as a waste of money if improvements do not result. Also, the programs do not address the larger issues that may be causing the outbreak of violence at the school. The programs are school-focused, not community and environment focused which may bring about better outcomes.
The second weakness in the current school violence reduction approach are the laws that have been enacted to curtail this sort of behavior. While there has been some recent emphasis on anti-bullying legislation, such as the new Massachusetts Act Relative to the Prevention of Bullying, the most common violence areas targeted by lawmakers are the gun and drug markets, each of which are highly correlated with violent and criminal outcomes. However, these laws often do not target the core of the problem they are trying to solve. Instead, they target the symptom of the illness just as a cold medicine will stop your nose from running but will not cure the cold that gave you the runny nose. This irony can be highlighted in two areas of the fight against youth and school violence.
The first and more obvious oversight is that lawmakers do not ask why youth are carrying guns or participating in other risky behavior. Research has shown that students often arm themselves in order to protect themselves (9). This behavior is quite circular. If we need to carry guns to protect ourselves, perhaps if we did not carry guns we would not need to protect ourselves . Another question: why do youths need to protect themselves at school? Clearly, the use of guns at school is not the only crime we need to address, rather we should be focusing on the need for students to have guns with them in school, namely the violence and crime students see in the course of their daily lives. Broader laws which target the ways in which youths access the guns they bring to school may be more effective.
Koper and Reuter (10) also criticize current laws as targeting the illicit behaviors of criminals instead of trying to control the licit behaviors , which lead to the illicit ones. For example, gun laws that punish people for illegal possession do not address how the gun came to be an “illegal possession” in the first place. In other words, current gun control policies in schools do not drive at the heart of the illicit market created for guns and drugs, rather, they target the individuals who use them, letting the market remain in tact (10).
The failure of current legislation and school violence policy ties in with the environmental issue raised above. Not only the environment within the school, but the environment outside of the school as well can influence student behavior on campus. Individuals who experience violence in the home and/or who are unaware of the dangers of carrying a gun are more likely to come to school with a gun (9) . Perhaps when students see violence and the possession of weapons in the place where they spend most of their day outside of school, they are encouraged to replicate those actions when they come to school. Current interventions fail to consider the multiple environments influencing student behavior and contributing to school violence.
Another missed opportunity to prevent violence might be right inside the classroom. In fact, a major protagonist of the issue may even be those who are teaching our children. Numerous studies have shown that the role models or people students interact with on a daily basis may not be the best examples of behavior for our children (2). This is especially the case in systems where physical punishment is allowed or even encouraged. Also ironically, some of the very programs we have instituted in our schools like strip searches and metal detector use may demonstrate to youths that such behavior is appropriate even though it may be conducted in a setting meant to protect them (2). Further scrutiny on how we are targeting the issue of school violence is clearly needed before we implement even the smallest of interventions aimed at reducing these occurrences.
In addition to the behavior of adults in the school and their interactions with students, the physical environment in which our children spend their school day may be one which is unwittingly prone to promoting, or at least allowing, violence to take place (11). There is not much research on this subject, but many criminologists are emphasizing that how we create our public spaces can have a dramatic effect on crime. The main issue at hand here is the old and outdated condition of many of our nation’s school buildings. For example, 34% of our school buildings in 1999 were built before 1950 (12). These were built at a time when school violence and crime were a non-issue, and the focus was on functionality, not on making the school an attractive and exciting place to be.
Along these lines, one can also implicate the way that the school day is structured in contributing to high-levels of school violence. It has been well studied that the majority of school crimes happen outside of structured classroom time, mainly prior to, and following, the school day (13). Federal funding for programs outside of the school day has been lacking. This can be derived from the fact that the budget for these programs is only one part of the 5.3% of the budget dedicated to student support services, an area which covers a wide array of programs not directly related to classroom instruction (14).
Each one of the three critiques listed above is associated with a simple and well-studied intervention that can begin the path to effective programs to reduce violence among our youth and in our schools. To counter the lack of studies aimed at evaluating classroom curricula which focus on violence prevention, the mantra of “Plan, Do, Study, Act” can be of much help. Next, contagion theory can help us address the reason gun carrying and other violent behaviors seem to spread or increase rapidly inside schools where it had previously not been a problem, and help guide us in drafting laws meant to reduce this spread of violence. Last, an approach called Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) can guide us in how to build our next generation of school buildings in a way that would promote community instead of giving classmates a place to hide when they commit violent acts.
The “Plan, Do, Study, Act” (PDSA) cycle is fairly self-explanatory. It is a method that can be implemented multiple times over on many different levels, even before an intervention is created. During planning stages, risk factors are identified and strategies are developed to target those risk factors. Next, the intervention is implemented, taking careful note of the baseline levels at the time of implementation. The last part of the “Do” step is to take continuous measurements of the risk factors during the implementation stage. Then the results are Studied carefully and reviewed, leading to the last step where the results are acted upon to improve the intervention from its original form. The cycle then begins anew, leading to a continuously improving program (15).
Applying this to school curriculums is quite easy and does not necessarily mean creating original material, for the concept can be applied to curriculums already in use. When a school chooses a violence prevention program, which has not been formally evaluated the school should instruct the program’s facilitator to note which behaviors they are aiming to reduce (“Do”) and if the program is effective at doing so. Following this analysis, which may take several years to accomplish, the results should be analyzed (“Study”) and tweaks made to the program to more directly address the specific concerns of the school (“Act”). Obviously, these changes should also be monitored and further changes made if the need should present itself, as the strength of the PDSA cycle is its ability to continuously monitor and improve interventions. In this example, there is no initial “Plan” stage since the program has already been implemented, but planning can and should be performed if a curriculum has not yet been chosen.
Alternatively, PDSA can be essential in the creation of an original intervention aimed at reducing school violence. This approach would mean that before a curriculum is even planned, a thorough formative evaluation has been conducted to first identify risk factors of school violence specific to the particular school and community and then to identify the appropriate tools and skills needed to reduce crime rates at the school. Ideally at least one round of PDSA should be done before a curriculum is created.
To understand exactly why our students are prone to copy the behavior of their peers, especially when it comes to replicating criminal acts, a look at the contagion model is warranted. The contagion model is most generally applied to contagious diseases, but Hemenway et al. (9) makes a compelling case that it could just as easily be applied to gun carrying in schools. Gun carrying is a good representative example of violent behavior in school, but this theory could also be extrapolated to other dangerous and harmful behavior. The contagion model is based on externalities within a group and based on what others in the group are doing; people will either follow, resist, or do nothing. This closely relates to Bernoulli’s “Susceptible, Infected, Resistant” model, where, at least in contagious disease, those who are infected are able to affect those who are susceptible, except for those who are resistant either through immunization or having already contracted the infection (9).
In terms of gun control, the infected group includes those students who are already bringing a gun to school. The susceptible ones are those who are more likely to bring a gun to school when others do, and the less susceptible group is those students who would never bring a gun to school. After studying gun carrying in school Hemenway et al. (9) noted that gun carrying creates what is called a replicative externality due to the fact that when a gun is present, those around the gun carrier feel less safe, rather than safer. In some circumstances, this may mean that others would be encouraged to also bring a gun in order to increase their feeling of safety among their peers. Hence, when a gun is carried into the classroom, students may become “infected”, have increased “susceptibility” or remain “resistant”. On a greater level, now that we see that gun carrying is, in a sense, contagious, creating laws which aim at controlling the spread of “gun carrying disease”, and not just those who possess the weapons, may have an additional benefit of reducing those who carry firearms to school.
Applying Hemenway et al.’s thinking towards the issue of gun carrying in school would mean that we need to target the factors which are leading towards the need for guns in the classroom. He and his colleagues suggest five areas where we could start to address the issue. Among them are targeting other risk behaviors that are associated with this act, such as teen drinking and smoking. While teen drinkers and smokers do not make up the large percentage overall of those who carry guns, they make up a large enough part that incorporating gun carrying risks and education into anti-smoking and anti-drinking campaigns aimed at adolescents would be beneficial (9). Therefore, perhaps instead of burdening our police force with even more to do, a small infusion of money into already existing programs to add a focus on gun control could go a long way.
Two of his other interventions touch on areas we have raised before. He highly encourages training in conflict resolution inside the classroom and urging parents to discuss with their children the risks of carrying guns (9). Unfortunately, as mentioned before, these areas are also contributors to the problem. Most existing curricula have not been empirically validated (or are not evidenced based) and one of the risk factors we have seen of violent behavior is that it begins in the home, making such conversations unlikely and at the very least hypocritical.
Considering the environment in which violence takes place is essential to any successful intervention. Training and education can happen over and over, but unless improvements are made to the physical, emotional and temporal environment, it will never be fully resolved. The leading theory directed at countering violent behavior in the physical environment is called crime prevention through environmental design. CPTED is defined as “the proper design and effective use of the built environment can lead to a reduction in the fear and incidence of crime, and an improvement in the quality of life” (Cozens et al., 2005). A recent example of such an approach can be seen in the architecture of the new US embassy in England, which incorporates many structural and landscaping elements to improve the overall safety of the building (16).
Schools are a perfect candidate for this type of design, as they are public spaces, and are, unfortunately, identified areas of crime. In the 1980s a successful pilot campaign was completed in Broward County, Florida, which incorporated the six elements of CPTED into new school buildings. One of the main concepts in CPTED is the aspect of territoriality or giving everyone in the defined space a sense of ownership over the area. This has the direct effect of discouraging “illegitimate users” from entering the space since they fear the retaliation of the legitimate users (11). In order to encourage such feelings, these public spaces often have wide sight-lines and open and inviting features, leaving few places for criminals to hide (17). It also ties in to another aspect of CPTED, which emphasizes “surveillance”, both actual and perceived, which has the effect of everyone feeling as if they can be seen by others, whether or not this is actually the case.
For example, in Broward county in order to incorporate perceived surveillance, one school knocked down a wall in their hallway and replaced it with windows, allowing people from the outside to see the actions going on inside and vice-versa. The Broward test-case resulted in lowered crime rates and a perceived increased feeling of safety among the students in that district (18).
Of course, one major obstacle to this intervention is the high cost of rebuilding many of our nation’s schools. But there are small steps schools can take that can have major effects and little associated cost. One choice is for schools to involve their student body in a communal project to improve the physical site of the building, for example, drawing murals in the play yard, or hanging student art throughout the school building. When everyone feels that they have a share in the environment, offenses are likely to drop.
Violence in America’s schools is a costly and dangerous situation. While our interventions are multifaceted, at best they have succeeded only at maintaining current levels of violence. There is no acceptable level of violence in our schools and a comprehensive review of current programs needs to be undertaken and replaced with one that is backed by evidence and easily implemented on a large scale. Only then will our schoolyards and classrooms be safe places for our children to attend school.
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