If we don’t suspend them, what do we do? We constructively work to break the vicious cycle of violence.
It is a challenge to teach children the skills they need to stop choosing negative behavior when many of them do not have the emotional security required to make healthy choices. Instead of nurturing, trusting, and consistent relationships with loving adults, they have a hyper-vigilant emotional foundation that comes from a variety of factors, including a life of neglect, abuse, family conflicts, poverty, substance abuse, and unsafe neighborhoods. A vicious cycle revolves around the insecurity of their personal situation, which makes them more distrustful and susceptible to the culture of violence, which then leads to harmful behaviors that only perpetuate the lack of emotional security.
In this environment, many young people develop a matter-of-fact view of violence and death. They might not think what they are doing is wrong or understand what they should do instead; it conflicts with what they know is true in their real life. To protect themselves they respond the best they can to the harsh lessons they learn early in life. Without the social bonds and trust that come from a safe and caring family and with many of their basic needs not met, children fight to survive in unhealthy violent ways. The resulting coping mechanisms can persist into adulthood.
Dr. James Garbarino, in Lost Boys, describes the background of men on death row this way:
“Each of these men had been subjected to extreme child maltreatment, yet none received mental health treatment once that victimization was substantiated by the state child protective services agency. I could not help but think that if any one of these young men had been taken hostage by a terrorist group and tortured for years, there would have been no question about their need for and entitlement to mental health services upon their release. Yet we did not provide the same services to these ‘hostages’ once they were released from their tormentors. And now we intended to execute them” (Garbarino 1999)
One size does not fit all when we consider that young people’s anti-social, self-harming behaviors -gang membership, alcohol and other drug use, vandalism, theft, early sexual behavior, physical violence-is an understandable, though not desired, reaction to a life of neglect and abuse. Targeted early intervention with mental health professionals is essential when a child’s anti-social behavior is a reaction to coping with a personal life of pervasive violence. This is where the school, more than ever, needs to be a safe haven where the negative forces of a child’s life outside the school do not carry over into the educational environment.
Why are some children resilient against these negative forces?
Research shows that two-thirds of students living in dire conditions rise above and succeed in spite of their circumstances. What does this two-thirds have that the other one-third is missing? We can prevent or mitigate the negative effects of a high-risk childhood by providing assets that build the network of support and the personal efficacy that are characteristic of survivors of toxic environments. These assets benefit all children and are critical for the most vulnerable. They include:
- · Caring relationships.
- · High expectations.
- · Meaningful participation.
- · Autonomy and sense of self.
- · Sense of meaning and purpose.
(California Healthy Kids Survey 1999)
A study on the relationship between student and teacher safety and the nature of the school and home community in the Chicago Public Schools found this is true. (Steinberg et al. 2011) Controlling for academic achievement and type of neighborhood (crime and poverty levels), the schools with the highest suspension rates were less safe than those with low suspension rates. Researchers discovered that the neighborhood in which the school was located was not as influential as the students’ home neighborhood. The primary difference between schools that felt safe and those that did not was the quality of the relationships between school staff and students and parents. It depended on what happened inside the four walls of the school. The study concluded, “disadvantaged schools with high-quality relationships actually feel safer than advantaged schools with low-quality relationships.”
In addition, the report noted that a relationship exists between student low academic achievement and increased problems with school safety and order. Schools with a population of low-achieving students experience higher rates of violence. This finding supports growing research that recommends schools focus on raising the literacy rates of young children, adolescents, and adults to reduce violence in schools and in the community. (Jalloh 2009) Research on aggressive behavior, high school drop-out rates, crime, incarceration and recidivism, unemployment, and poverty show a positive correlation between these negative outcomes and poor literacy skills, especially among Latino and African-American men. The literacy-violence connection has been widely documented and the results show this aggression begins in the primary grades when children first experience frustration when trying to learn to read.
To succeed at academics, students need cognitive confidence (ability to read fluently with comprehension), text confidence (stamina to read increasingly difficult material), and social and emotional confidence (positive attitude and enjoyment of reading) (Jalloh 2009, 3) Students who have many negative risk factors in their lives need an intentional school support system and targeted early intervention efforts to teach literacy, math, and technology skills. Without this support these children become disengaged underachievers who stop trying, turn to violence to get what they need, leave school before they graduate, and live a life of poverty and crime. This reality reinforces the need for school-wide, intentional efforts to improve the interactions and relationships among staff, children, and families, and make the connection to academic success.
Teachers know we can intervene early and change this pattern. The Chicago Public Schools study gives credence to the belief that the way we relate to our students is the critical factor in reducing school violence and improving academic performance. A secure climate is necessary for children to take risks and learn. It is in our power to create a secure, caring climate that addresses the academic and social-emotional needs of our students and builds resilience against negative circumstances, regardless of their neighborhood of origin. And when there is a problem, we need to handle it thoughtfully and appropriately within the context of the student and the circumstances. One-size fits all rigid discipline policies do not work.
In Part Three we’ll see how there are better options that teach, in a lasting way, self-discipline, taking responsibility for one’s choices, restitution, and that result in better decision making in the future.
Part Three: Instead of zero-tolerance, use early intervention, mediation and restorative justice.
A Return to Common Sense and Reason
The US Department of Education recently condemned zero-tolerance discipline policies in schools. Time and experience have proven zero-tolerance policies-where all degrees of discipline issues are treated in a rigid, cause-effect way-are ineffective at reducing violence and teaching our students a better way to live and treat others. With this shift in public policy, we are now ready to build a more humane and hopeful approach to school discipline and violence prevention, one where reasonable and consistent discipline policies and practices build relationships and a positive school climate, not destroy them.
Where did the idea of using zero-tolerance in our schools come from?
The zero-tolerance policies enacted in the 1990s were a well-intentioned response to a growing concern about the presence of illegal drugs, alcohol, and firearms on school campuses. The Gun Free Schools Act of 1994 implemented a nationwide law mandating a one-year expulsion for students who were proven to have brought a firearm or other weapon to school. Over time, some states and school districts expanded zero-tolerance policies to include a range of behaviors including illegal drugs, insubordination, and bullying and they became the disciplinary approach of choice from kindergarten to high school.
Unfortunately after all these years, researchers have found that such punitive threats do little to deter violent behavior and often exacerbate a problematic situation. Automatic rigid penalties such as suspensions and expulsions:
- Prevent schools from considering context and individual circumstances.
- Damage relationships and chip away at the climate of the school.
- Are disproportionate to race and socio-economic status, and students with special educational needs.
- Encourage adults to give up on “problem” students.
- Do nothing to encourage interventions that could help change students’ behavior, save them from dropping out of school, and keep them from continuing to act violently and winding up in jail.
- Can look foolishly misguided as in the case of the suspension of a kindergarten child for bringing a weapon to school (a dinner knife), or a first grader for sexually harassing a classmate (kissing her during recess).
By ignoring context and circumstances, zero-tolerance policies had a disproportional and negative impact on African-American and Latino students and were often a path to more trouble and imprisonment. The policies disregarded the reality that a student’s life experiences and the type of community he lives in profoundly affect his understanding of what is and is not acceptable behavior. At times home and neighborhood give a context for behavior that would be out of line in a school and, in the same way, school approved behaviors might seem foreign and impractical given the home environment.
Children face an internal conflict in trying to live successfully in these two very different worlds. This results in the alienation of students raised in toxic environments and who find themselves in a school culture that contradicts their own norms. They get in trouble more easily and more often for using the survival skills they have adopted in response to a culture of violence where emotional and physical force is the everyday means of dealing with conflict. Their behavior is as much about self-preservation as it would be for a soldier in a war zone.
It bears reinforcing that when we consider circumstances it does not mean we accept inappropriate behavior: Violent and disruptive behavior are still serious and must be stopped. Standards for behavior are kept high, all misbehavior is consistently addressed, and the safety of students and staff remains the top priority. Yet we are mindful that every inappropriate behavior is not of the same seriousness and does not deserve the same response.
One-Size Discipline Does Not Fit All
The more alienated the student, the greater the feeling of powerlessness and the greater the effort needed to reach out to help him develop that critical missing connection to the school and to those in it. So, we can be more effective by being more thoughtful. In place of zero-tolerance policies we can use our broad understanding of violence as a continuum of behaviors- emotional and physical, subtle to obvious – to address violence in all its forms and to understand its patterns. Then we can intervene early. And when we do intervene we can be compassionate and fair in our expectations, and work with students to replace their learned violent behaviors with socially acceptable alternatives, each according to need. It’s both logical and natural to treat individuals in the way that is most effective for them, to meet them where they are in their development, to help them grow in self-discipline and self-control, and to learn constructive ways to get their needs met. We take this approach to skill building for academics, learning an instrument, in sports, etc, so why not for behavior? We consider context and understand each circumstance and that the child is still learning.
Inconsistent responses to acts of violence (a behavior is okay for one group of students but not for another, or the behavior is not always addressed) and “ zero tolerance” policies that react rigidly to categories of behavior cause students and families to regard school rules and staff with skepticism. They see school and the administrators and teachers as unresponsive and even discriminatory. They lose faith in the educational system, or see their preconceived opinions about the school reinforced. These missteps undermine our efforts to build the trust with children and their families needed to change inappropriate behavior.
And to what end? A comprehensive policy research report on the effect of zero tolerance policies and practices found “an almost complete lack of evidence that zero tolerance is among the strategies capable of accomplishing that objective (reducing violent and illegal behavior). Researcher Russell Skiba concluded, “One can only hope for the development and application of more effective, less intrusive alternatives for preserving the safety of our nation’s schools.”
A Better Way
School education lawyer Dean Pickett understood the concept of context when he called for a more reasonable approach, which involves “zero tolerance for behavior but not zero thinking.” The addition of thinking and using our judgment allows administrators and other school adults to consider context and circumstances, and intent and history of the student to decide the most fair and effective response.
These fair responses offered through caring, concerned relationships are what we owe our students and how we can best effect change in their attitudes and behavior. This is what I would want if I found myself in trouble.
Is anyone listening?
Writing is a solitary pursuit and publishing your writing is a leap of faith. Without a direct connection with an audience it is easy to wonder…Do people care about school climate? Do I have something important to say about school violence? Do I offer new insights that help us improve the school experience for students? Do my posts inspire others to reevaluate and take action?
Thanks to this WordPress annual report of my blog activity for 2013, I know the answer is yes. Schoolclimate.com had 3,500 views this year. I had no idea so many people visited my site, especially since I am not the most prolific blogger and seem to average one post a month.
Blogger or Essayist?
Blogger probably isn’t the right word for what I do. I think I am more of an essayist. I don’t maintain my blog site regularly. I am inspired to write when I feel I have something important to say. It doesn’t have to be important with a capital I; it could just be a different perspective on an old topic or a new idea I had about something to try. Things that are thought-provoking, enlightening, and disturbing spur my posts. When I do write it is from my deep commitment to keep the conversation going and to generate positive change.
While I enjoyed writing each post, I am especially pleased that my most popular post was New School Year Tip: Create a no sarcasm zone. Eliminating sarcasm is a foundation for a school climate that teaches respectful communication and nurtures positive relationships among students and between teachers and students. The topic of sarcasm clearly resonated with readers and that tells us people do care about making our schools the emotionally and physically safe havens we owe our children.
So thanks and happy new year to my regular followers and to all the Internet searchers who found me. You made this a good year for schoolclimate.com. Energized by the stats, I will continue to write about topics that inspire me and I hope, in turn, interest and inspire you. In fact, I already have one brewing to start the new year!
Here is the WordPress.com 2013 annual statistics report for my blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,500 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 58 trips to carry that many people.
A confusion of issues and solutions
We are back to school after the terrible tragedy of December 14th and the long holiday vacation. It was a juxtaposition of realities for families and school staff. And then the tragedy was high jacked by the gun industry, propelling us into a national discussion about arming school personnel to protect students and staff from a future violent rampage.
It is natural for caring people to want to do something, to take concrete action to prevent any more deaths of innocent school children and adults. We feel helpless otherwise. Every school district and building is likely reviewing its crisis prevention and emergency response plans, wondering how it would have handled the situation, making improvements, and holding practice drills. We are skittish.
But the discussion has gone askew. Putting guns in schools for protection is a dangerous diversion from the issues, a misguided over reaction that makes schools less safe. It is heartening to see the growing push back against this proposed solution.
Violence in Perspective
What we really need to do is to put what happened at Sandy Hook in perspective. Mass murder, or any murder, is still extremely rare at a school. It is horrible, but rare. And what happened at Sandy Hook is even more rare, as it does not fit the typical profile for the kind of deadly violence of a Columbine, Jonesboro, or West Paducah . This time the killer was not a disenfranchised, troubled, bullied male student from that school, hell-bent on notoriety or revenge. The Sandy Hook killer was an outsider, a troubled adult with a not yet revealed motive for choosing this elementary school to act out his mental breakdown.
But, yes! There is violence in schools and it spans the violence continuum from subtle to overt, from emotional to physical. The profile of school violence looks like this:
Common, every day – taunting, teasing, excluding, bullying, shoving, threatening, harassing, hazing…among students.
Rare: Incidents of killing of students and staff by a student in that school.
Extremely rare: Incidents of killing of students and staff by an outside intruder.
The real issues
It is clear that deadly gun violence by a student or an outsider are a distant second and third behind the typical more subtle violence our students have to deal with in schools daily, and that they are very different issues. What happened at Sandy Hook is not a school issue; it is a cultural, societal, and legal issue.
Suggesting that the routine use of armed guards or armed staff at all schools is the answer to school violence is irrational. It intentionally clouds the broader issues of a culture that uses violence to settle problems and to dominate others, the control of access to assault and other weapons, and the insufficient availability of mental health services for those in need and their families. These are the issues Sandy Hooks begs us to face head on if we truly want to keep our children and ourselves safe from random mass-shootings, because they can and do happen anywhere – at the mall, on our streets, in a movie theater, in a fast food restaurant, at an office building, and in our homes. The answer is not to station armed guards where ever people gather.
We can do some concrete things to make our schools safe
- Have a written school safety plan that includes prevention and crisis response that meets our specific needs. From what we know, the principal and staff had done this due diligence to protect the members of their school. They developed a thorough crisis prevention/intervention plan that included controlled, limited access to the school, a plan for lock down and sheltering in place in an emergency, and a plan for sheltering off site in the event of an evacuation; and they practiced the drill with their students and staff. Add to this the valor of the adults and cooperation of the children, and they can rest assured they had taken school safety seriously. An armed guard or a principal with a gun would likely not have stopped someone with a semi-automatic weapon that planned to break into a school to shoot people.
- Review and address the safety needs of our particular school. Many schools, usually secondary schools, in high-risk areas or with a high incidence of verbal and physical threats, poor administrative leadership, assaults, gang activity, non-compliance with the staff and school code of conduct, etc. have responded to their specific needs with security measures such as campus guards, controlled entry, and metal detectors, no backpacks, and swift and consistent response to violent threats or acts. These precautions are proper in these situations, but not for all schools.
- Continue to intentionally make our school a violence-free zone for every student and adult. Assess and address the kinds of subtle, hurtful violence students face every day. Be observant, listen to students, and report and deal with problems as they arise. We aren’t helpless. This is what we can do to make schools safer and more secure for our children.
For information on the violence continuum and how to use it to identify the needs in your school, please see my book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate.
Rocked to the core
Today’s mass killing of innocent young children and adults in the Sandy Hook Elementary School has rocked us to our core. On the “violence continuum” this is off the chart, an extraordinary, unthinkable act by a disturbed individual. It shatters our belief of school as a safe haven– a place where we can just be that we count on as being safe. I was an elementary principal and can only imagine the horror of the scene.
As we adults grieve and process what happened and seek information and motive, we need to keep in mind that our own children still count on us to protect and care for them emotionally and psychologically. This means acting as responsible adults who make their needs the priority.
Not all children will hear about the shooting, nor do they need to, especially young children, and we should avoid burdening them unnecessarily. If they are older, directly affected, or do ask questions, we can respond in a way that reduces anxiety and builds their sense of security. While devastating, we need to remember that school shootings and other fatal acts are still very rare, and that less than 2% of youth murders occur in school. This statistic does not make what happened easier to accept, but it does put it in perspective as we and our children cope.
What do we say?
If your children do ask questions about the tragedy or are exposed to media coverage, we can mitigate the negative effect…
- First, sit down together.
- Turn off the TV, computers, and cell phones.
- Then reassure them, and yourselves, that they are safe, that school shootings are extremely rare.
- Listen to their concerns.
- Answer questions rationally and calmly, according to the child’s developmental level.
- Give only the information asked for; grizzly details are harmful and produce more anxiety.
- Keep the TV off while your children are around.
- Create normalcy by doing your usual routines.
- Love and be there for them.
And then we can search our souls for what we can and need to do to help our country heal and become a less violent place.