The University Record, November 21, 1995

School violence course takes U students to classrooms

By Matthew Thorburn
News and Information Services Intern

Students fighting on the playground and in the lunchroom, guns and knives smuggled into classrooms, the rise of security personnel and metal detectors in schools--- all are signs of a problem widely recognized but not always effectively address ed: violence in schools.

"Violence in schools is a growing concern that interferes with children's physical well being, academic functioning, social relations, and emotional and cognitive developement," says Ron Avi Astor, assistant professor of social work and of education.

In his graduate course, "School Violence," Astor offers a unique, interdisciplinary approach to this problem that crosses boundaries to find workable solutions.

The wide-ranging nature of school violence calls for a broad-based approach. The "School Violence" course, cross-listed with the schools of Social Work and Education---and including psychology, law and public health students--- reflects the cross-section of professionals needed to deal effectively with school violence.

"It's a really exciting class," says Ave Bortz, a graduate student in the School of Social Work. "Everybody brings a different perspective on the role of the teacher [in school violence prevention]."

Astor stresses the need for professionals to "come together to dialogue on the issues" involved in school violence. "The question," he says, "is where and how."

"School Violence" offers an opportunity for such dialogue among future professionals. In the class, students read a wide range of literature on school violence, from meta-reviews to theoretical and journalistic pieces.

In addition, the class goes on several site visits to observe different types of violence prevention and intervention programs in schools around the state. Here, Astor says, his students have the opportunity to examine a variety of programs, observe their results and "find what's missing in the intervention literature."

These approaches include:

 Tertiary programs that work with students after violent acts have occurred;

 Secondary programs that target students in risk groups who have started to act out; and

 Primary prevention programs that address all students, teaching conflict management skills as early as preschool.

During their site visits, U-M students interview teachers and students as well as observe classrooms and lunchrooms. Being able to "hear from the field" is essential, Astor says.

Back in the classroom, Astor's students discuss the school violence programs observed, debating the pros and cons of each program, as well as the theory behind the programs. They look for what works, as well as what could be improved in each prog ram, engaging in "active, collaborative learning," Bortz says.

At the end of the term, students complete independent projects on issues relating to school violence, such as gangs, gender issues or sexual assault. These projects are largely "on the cutting edge," with students often examining issues not yet addressed in the available literature, Astor says.

Another important aspect of the course is that this learning experience extends beyond the actual class.

"It's the start of a whole process of questioning things and looking at things differently," Bortz says. "This is not something that ends in December. We'll all keep evaluating and re-evaluating the issues."