Schools echo America's history and continuing propensity for violence; school violence is a subset of broader youth and urban violence spawned by poverty, racism and systemic neglect clearly reflected in disenfranchised inner-city communities. While understanding the nature and extent of the problem is essential, the absence of political will is an even greater barrier. Materialism and greed shapes this nation's persona and feeds its callous indifference to those ensnarled in violent environments every single day. Many Black parents contribute to the problem by not holding schools accountable for providing a quality education for their children.
Recently, the California State Senate Committee on Public Safety and Select Committee on Urban School Governance, chaired by Gloria Romero and Mark Ridley-Thomas respectively, held a hearing on school violence at West Adams Preparatory School in Los Angeles. The usual bureaucratic suspects testified with patented, stultifying irrelevance:
A State Department of Education representative talked about school violence trends; the president of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) and LA school district staff addressed the impact of school violence on the educational environment, and ironically, lawyers from the City Attorney's office spoke on, "Prevention: Innovations and Effectiveness," Public comments were last on the agenda, as usual. (Written material dealing mostly with school violence nationally was available--only statistics on California and LAUSD expulsion, suspension and truancy were included.)
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) fact sheet did provide context for widespread school violence. Excerpts follow:
Approximately 38 percent of public schools reported at least one incident of violence to police during 2005-2006; in 2005, 24 percent of students reported gangs at their school; from 2003-2004, 10 percent of teachers in city schools reported being threatened with injury by students.
Risk Behaviors: In 2005, a nationwide survey of students, grades 9-12, reported the following: 6.5 percent of students carried a weapon on school property; 7.9 percent were threatened or injured with a weapon on school property; 8.4 percent attempted suicide one or more times in the 12 months preceding the survey.
Non-fatal Victimization: In 2005, students, ages 12-18, were victims of about 628,200 violent crimes at schools, including rape, both sexual and aggravated assault, and robbery; approximately 30 percent of students reported "sometimes or frequent" bullying; 60 percent of boys who were bullies in middle school had at least one criminal conviction by the age of 24.
Violent Deaths: Violent deaths at schools accounted for less that 1 percent of the homicides and suicides of children 5-18. During the past seven years, 116 students were killed in 109 separate incidents. Students also seek medical care for non-fatal, violence-related injuries ranging from relatively minor, to gunshot wounds and head trauma that could lead to permanent disability.
Individual Risk Factors: History of violent victimization; attention deficits, hyperactivity or learning disorders; history of early aggressive behavior; association with delinquent peers; involvement in gangs; low IQ, poor academic performance, anti-social beliefs and attitudes, social rejection by peers, and exposure to violence and conflict in the family. Community/societal risk factors are also significant.
School Violence Prevention: Universal school-based prevention programs have been found to reduce rates of aggression and violent behavior among students. These programs are delivered to all students in a school or selected grade level, and include emotional self-awareness, emotional control, social problem-solving and conflict resolution. (Parent and family-based interventions designed to improve family relations are increasing.)
Community Level Strategies: These strategies focus on modifying community characteristics, including school settings that either promote or inhibit violence. Schools are embedded within a larger community environment by which they are influenced and as a result, efforts to change the physical and social environment of communities also benefit the schools. It is important to understand what factors protect people or put them at risk for perpetuating school violence.
Discerning, caring persons realize that schools foster violence in various ways, gross neglect chief among them. Rarely does assessment of the problem focus on the school itself as a breeding ground for violence, gangs and prisons. And seldom do corrective strategies emphasize prevention, focusing almost entirely on intervention and suppression. Until prevention is a primary focus commensurate with its significance, school violence reduction efforts will continue to fail. Increased security, gang injunctions, longer prison terms, etc., only curtail violence temporarily because they do not include sufficient focus on root causes.
Lack of accountability by those entrusted with curbing violence, including parents and local communities, exacerbates school violence and related health issues. For starters, parents should insist that staff recruitment criteria include high expectations and discernable potential for effectively working with students of color, Blacks especially, in inner city schools. Clearly, new, innovative approaches are necessary for sustainable violence reduction in all schools.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail