The University Record, January 24, 2000

Violence in schools: No easy answers

By Rebecca A. Doyle

Where did the growing violence in our schools come from? How can we stop it?

There are no simple solutions to the problem of growing violence in both schools and popular American culture, James Gabarino and Pedro Noguera said in their dual lecture last week. Gabarino, author of Lost Boys and professor of human development at Cornell University, and Noguera, author of a number of articles on social and cultural causes of violence and professor of social and cultural studies at the University of California, Berkeley, spoke to an audience that overflowed the School of Education’s Whitney Auditorium and spilled into the hallways. “Magnifying the Issue: Violence in Schools and Understanding the Climate of Popular American Culture” was part of the University’s Martin Luther King Symposium.

Gabarino used examples from his own family experience to illustrate the change in society over the past few years.

When his family lived on the south side of Chicago, an area known for violence, he expressed concern for his son’s safety late at night. But his son pointed to the newspaper, which had just published the pictures of all the children who had been killed in the area in the past year—most of whom were African American or Hispanic. “He felt a sense of immunity from that violence because of the color of his skin,” Gabarino said.

But a few years later, when the family was in a much different environment in Ithaca, N.Y., his daughter expressed fear for her own safety after school shootings in Oregon were publicized. “That sense of immunity that my son had shown just a few years ago was no longer there.”

Teen violence in both the schools and community is no longer an issue of race, Gabarino said. It has caused a national mobilization that has, in some cases, prompted parents and school officials to overreact. That mobilization has been the result of “ a different kind of kid being killed,” Gabarino said. If the Chicago Tribune were now to print photos of all the children killed in violent incidents, they would no longer be mostly of minority children.

One of the dangers of such a mobilization, however, is the hysteria that has accompanied it, he noted. In America, the tendency is to act before thinking through the problem, unlike European cultures where the problem is deeply probed before action is taken. “Action is our strong suit,” Gabarino said, and acting quickly in the case of teen violence can lead to putting resources in the wrong places, he cautioned.

Gabarino, who is sought after as an authority on cultural violence, was asked after the Littleton, Colo., school shootings if there are ways to identify potentially violent students. There are four things to keep in mind:

1. Everything depends on a number of factors, and there is no way to tell for certain which teens may channel their anger or frustration into violent acts.

2. The risk is cumulative. He likened the accumulation of risk factors that promote violent behavior to the concept of the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”

3. Teens can cope with a number of environmental emotional hazards, but like soldiers who are in combat for too long, their resilience diminishes with each additional hazard introduced. Gabarino said there are five factors that make breakdowns of this resilience more likely to occur, and that breakdowns will occur in 100 percent of those who have been subjected to abuse and neglect, live in the most violent and impoverished areas, are between 13 and 15 years of age, who are male, and who are subjected to racist treatment.

4. A spiritual emptiness leads to a feeling of not being connected to anything, of having no limits for behavior and no reverence for life.

In Canada, he said, school violence is much less a problem. When asked by the FBI last summer whether there was anything concrete he could tell them to do to make schools safer, he replied, “Jack them up, put them on wheels and drive them to Canada.” Children in American schools, he said, are “orphaned”—not part of the community, left alone by working parents, no longer involved in churches and not connected in the schools.

“With the guns, the visual imagery, video games and all the rest of it, it shouldn’t be surprising that we see the fruits of that in the form of violence in our society,” he concluded.

Noguera focused his remarks on three questions:

  • Are the policies we are enacting actually working to make schools safe? If not, what’s wrong with them?

  • What is it about schools today that seems to make them particularly vulnerable to the violence?

  • What can kids tell us about this issue?

    He answered the first with an example of schools in Kansas City, Mo., that, he said, were “turning schools into a prison.” Kansas City’s high school had added a weight room, robotics lab and amphitheater to attract students, but required students to enter the school through a metal detector, submit to a full body search and show identification.

    “I wondered to myself, ‘If it takes this much security to keep this place safe, what’s going on in this community?’” And Kansas City is not alone. The prevailing attitude, he said, is that “if you make schools more like prisons, then they will be safe.” This creates only an illusion of safety, he said, citing a conversation that he had with a student who said that if he wanted to take a weapon into a school, he simply would not go through the metal detector.

    “This atmosphere has become so cold and so controlled that [schools] are inhospitable.”

    If zero-tolerance policies and controlled environments are not the answer, what should we do to keep schools safe? A safe school, Noguera said, is one where the community is involved with, not intimidated by, students.

    He cited an instance in which a teenager brought a gun to school and was expelled. The zero-tolerance policy, he said, did not allow for “judgment and good sense” on the part of school officials. The student had brought the gun to school because his mother had just died and his father had told him to take the gun away because he (the father) was thinking about committing suicide. Based on the school’s policies, the student had to be expelled, no matter what the circumstances.

    “Increasingly, in schools, the adults fear kids and the kids are left on their own to resolve conflicts,” he said. That fear, coupled with the isolation of teens, leads to a fertile ground for violent actions.

    In many schools, those who interact the most with students do not know them in any other capacity. Schools should hire monitors who live in the neighborhoods and already know the students well.

    Schools are more vulnerable to student violence today because, among other things, they are unable to respond to the “testing” that teens do to find the boundaries. Communities, schools and parents are not “in synch,” he said, and are antagonistic toward each other. Communities, parents and educators should support each other and the children with a consistent set of values and expectations. A safe school, he said, is not one with metal detectors and a principal who has a baseball bat, but one where the community is involved, not intimidated.

    Noguera said that in polling students, there were striking differences in the responses children made between those in middle class school districts and those in poor school districts.

    He asked children what they would do if they were challenged to fight, or felt threatened. In middle class schools, students said they would tell an adult. Students from poorer schools said they would deal with it, even if they were beaten up, because to bring in an adult was to lose respect.

    Responses to other questions illustrated differences in how students viewed weapons and violence in general. When they were asked what they would do if a fight broke out, however, students from both poor and middle class districts said they would go watch the fight.

    That, Noguera said, can be attributed to the society we live in, where violence is seen as entertaining, from sports to television and video games.

    Students also told him that conflict resolution is only effective when adults are available to enforce it. When there are no adults present, such as on the way to or from school, the risk of violence is greatest.

    “Schools need to rethink their boundaries,” Noguera concluded. “To say that the school is responsible for what happens on school grounds and then to ignore what happens in the parking lot or across the street is a problem.

    “We are more likely to find solutions in the quality of relationships that are formed within the school than in safety devices. And we also have to recognize that school safety can’t be treated in isolation from the larger issues in society related to the ways in which violence is condoned and promoted as a legitimate recourse.”

    The presentation was sponsored by the MLK Symposium Planning Committee, the School of Education and the School of Social Work.