Violence among youth, especially in schools, is one of American society’s most pressing concerns. It is also a source of controversy. While no recent nationwide study of the real extent of youth violence is available, small-scale and regional studies indicate that youth violence is increasing, at least slightly. In addition, youth, like adults, are now more frequently using guns instead of fists to settle disputes. Youth violence had once been thought to be an urban public school problem; a consequence of poverty and family dysfunction, but stable suburban and rural communities are now also experiencing it, as are private schools.
While early intervention is absolutely necessary to help prevent violence, I believe all school operations and staff must be directly involved to effectively reduce the crime. There is sometimes a contradiction between school policies and practice. Many districts and schools have comprehensive regulations for dealing with violence, but enforcement may be uneven or lax. This creates a situation where teachers do not feel supported when they impose discipline, students do not feel protected, and the violence- prone think they will not be punished.
Conversely, administrators express dismay that teachers do not enforce policies in their classrooms. Despite these inconsistencies, many promising types of anti-violence strategies have been devised by government, communities, and schools. Most have originated in urban areas, where youth violence was first identified. Elementary education training in anger management, impulse control, appreciation of diversity, and mediation and conflict resolution skills can help prevent youth from engaging in violence as they mature.
Early discussions about the negative consequences of gang membership, and providing children with positive ways of getting personal needs met, can protect them from future gang recruitment efforts. Educating young children about the use of guns is also valuable, since accidents have happened as a result of children’s naivete about their danger. Even more than violence prevention in general, effective anti-gang strategies require establishment of a positive school climate, good communications and security, a staff trained in crisis intervention, and a coordinated effort.
They also require that schools not only acknowledge a gang presence, but that they actively investigate its extent and accurately determine who the members are, what they do, and where they congregate. Involving parents by providing them with information about their children’s gang activity and its possible consequences, and counseling to help them deal with the problem, can enlist them as allies in the effort to rid the school of gangs. Schools can also provide access to outside agencies that offer counseling. As a last resort, gang members can be transferred to alternative schools for more intensive support.
Concern about increasing youth violence is being channeled into a variety of programs around the country. Although components vary depending on the particular needs of the community, the most effective programs use various methods. Direct measures to prevent violence in schools Legislation now exists at all levels of government to reduce the availability of guns, particularly the sale of weapons to minors. Weapons offenses are treated more harshly in general, and the practice of trying violent juvenile offenders as adults is growing.
Some states now hold parents legally responsible for certain behavior of their children, such as truancy and delinquency. To deal with violence in schools, President Bill Clinton signed the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act, mandating a one-year expulsion for students who bring weapons to school and bolstering the “zero tolerance” for weapons policies of some states and school districts already in existence. The Federal government, and most states, also make funds available for prevention activities through anti crime and education legislation.
These include anti-gang programs and other very focused prevention education, as well as more general recreational activities. Some districts are restructuring schools to increase student engagement, attendance, and performance. School reform programs around the country, especially those requiring strong family involvement, report increased attendance and student satisfaction. Many schools that cannot totally restructure still strive to better meet the education needs of students through more accurate identification of learning disabilities and personal attention.
A related reform is downsizing schools, since it has been widely documented that smaller schools have fewer disruptions and incidences of violence. It is also believed that the appearance of a school adds to the perception of safety, and that a well cared for school is less susceptible to vandalism and violence. Unfortunately, schools in urban areas, where violence can be a particular problem, are among the most overcrowded and poorly equipped and maintained. Dress regulations, particularly those forbidding clothing associated with gang membership, are increasingly popular.
Requiring uniforms is thought to increase students’ commitment to school goals and to reduce theft of expensive clothing and jewelry. The most common school security measure is the monitoring of students when they move through the hallways and in places where they congregate, such as restrooms and the cafeteria. School staff members have traditionally served as monitors, but increasingly schools are hiring security guards to patrol the building and to provide security at events. In the most violence-prone areas schools may form partnerships with the police to visit periodically or even to patrol the halls regularly.
However, some educators believe that a police presence has a negative impact on teaching and learning and that the need for them is an indication of administrative failure. Others welcome police support but provide special training for dealing with students in a school environment. Probation officers with on- site offices can provide help to students who have already engaged in illegal behavior. Some schools use parents as monitors and teachers’ aides. Doing this is inexpensive and can be an effective deterrent, since students may be more reluctant to behave badly when watched by someone they regularly see in the neighborhood.
To keep students from bringing in weapons some schools use metal detectors and others administer systematic or random searches of students’ bodies, possessions, and lockers. Since there is a strong relationship between student violence and use and sale of drugs, administrators make special efforts to keep schools drug-free, through both education campaigns and searching. The courts have been divided about the constitutionality of searches for either weapons or drugs, however, and some methods, such as use of drug-sniffing dogs, are being challenged legally.
To dispel fears and help teachers feel supported, meetings about violence issues are held regularly, possibly as a component of general staff meetings. Teachers’ input can be invaluable, since it is common for them to have information about the threat of violence before administrators do, and to have suggestions for how to deal with it based on personal knowledge of the students. Teachers can also meet in groups to discuss ways to establish and maintain control of their classroom and a climate conducive to learning, and to brainstorm strategies for working with disruptive students.
Since at-risk students respond positively to personal attention, teachers can help youth resist violent impulses and the lure of drugs and gangs by offering them extra help with their schoolwork, referrals, informal counseling, or even just a sympathetic ear. In all communities it is likely that sometimes anti-violence work will be compromised by lack of resources and time, and that even the most dedicated individuals will feel frustrated. Early evaluations of well-organized programs suggest that success is possible, though; and statistics demonstrating an increase in youth violence, however slight, indicate that more effort is necessary.