Violence Reduction? Start With School Culture

A four-part prevention program that can supplement the new security measures inside schools by STAN FRIEDLAND

The tragic scenes from places such as Paducah, Ky., Jonesboro, Ark., Springfield, Ore., and now Littleton, Colo., will forever remain etched in our minds as we recall the innocent students and teachers gunned down in places of teaching and learning.

These incidents remind every educator that no school is safe from random and unforeseen acts of lunacy. To counter this vulnerability, virtually every school district has intensified its security measures and increased the sensitivity of all personnel to the potential signs of trouble among students.

More metal detectors are in place in schools than ever before. More security personnel are being employed by schools than ever before. However, in spite of these security-based, curative measures, violent acts continue to occur with some frequency in our public schools. More than 6,000 students were expelled from schools last year for possession of a weapon or for making threatening statements, according to the first annual School Safety Report issued last October by the U.S. Department of Education and the Justice Department.

Security measures are simply not enough. "If all schools do is add guards or metal detectors or put students in uniforms or expel them, it won't work," said Kevin Dwyer, assistant director of the National Association of School Psychologists. "You don't change a kid's behavior by expelling him. The real solution is to teach students how to think, how to act, how to deal with their anger. Maybe that wasn't the job of schools in 1950, but it sure is now."

Schools can become healthier places, where anger and alienation will be replaced by positive and pro-social attitudes and behaviors among all students. For this to happen, however, a new objective must be granted high priority status by school district leaders. The objective is to change the culture of each school from one that focuses on individual goal achievement exclusively to one of achievement through cooperative teamwork.

This is so important because the one common thread to emerge from the tragic shootings is that the perpetrators felt rejected or ridiculed by their peers. They resorted to an extreme response to gain revenge or make an emphatic public statement. A warmer, supportive school environment might identify such outcasts in order to defuse the hostility and alienation that leads these students to violent acts.

When such an objective becomes the defined goal of the total school community, then school leaders must put into place purposeful programs that make the culture of the school community friendlier, less threatening and far more rewarding.

Cooperative Learning
The following activities represent a formidable and comprehensive program to achieve this desirable objective.
  • Use cooperative learning as a classroom instructional format for all grade levels for approximately 25 percent of the time.

Most U.S. students spend their entire school careers in traditional or competitive classroom settings. Sitting in rank-and-file classrooms, they continuously are directed to "do your own work," "do not help others," "do not let others copy from you," and "be responsible only for yourself."

After 13 years in this format, students are conditioned to be isolated and detached from others and to pursue only what’s in their self-interest. Their classroom behavior is characterized by a "what's in it for me?" attitude, and not surprisingly, based on periodic surveys, many students find the typical secondary classroom to be a competitive and unfriendly place.

Cooperative learning, on the other hand, actively promotes and develops teamwork, pro-social skills and a strong sense of belonging and unity. The cooperative format, consisting of four-person, heterogeneous learning teams with each student having a specific role to play, is a collaborative approach in which improved learning for each member is the desired outcome. Learning tasks and rewards are structured so that team members are positively interdependent, but with both individual and team accountability. The underlying theme shifts from the "what’s in it for me?" attitude to "what's in it for us?"

Teachers need training to use cooperative learning because it is a substantive, structured and sequenced format. This can take place during an in-service program with sufficient time and support provided. Yet it must be emphasized that cooperative learning does not replace the traditional format. When used up to 25 percent of the time at all grade levels and by skilled teachers, it provides students with a far more supportive learning and social environment.

A considerable body of research on cooperative learning bears out conclusively the link to better academic and social outcomes. In addition, the underlying theme of "what's in it for us?" can be extended into goal-setting for classwide and schoolwide outcomes. When students feel they are part of a team, they always have someone on their side.

William Glasser, the eminent psychiatrist turned educator, thinks so highly of the team-learning format that he has made it the focus of several of his powerful books. In Control Theory in the Classroom, and its sequel, The Quality School, Glasser espouses the value of team learning as the most important way of replacing the coercive school practices with one that is even more effective and far more agreeable to the developmental needs of students.

An Invitational Place
  • Energize the five P's of every school's culture: places, policies, people, programs and processes.

Invitational education is a philosophy and set of activities intended to create a total school climate that is welcoming--a place that intentionally stimulates people to realize their individual and collective potential. It does this by quantifying each of the P categories into "disinvitational," "non-invitational" and "invitational" guidelines.

Four key assumptions underlie invitational education:

  1. Trust: Education must involve students so they feel realistic ownership and empowerment as part of the learning process. Constantly controlling students and directing them to do what we want them to do is contrary to their developmental needs and creates a disinvitational climate, which is counterproductive. Trust-based procedures must be used to truly motivate students for their continuing development as students and citizens.
  2. Respect: Everyone in the school community should be seen as able, valuable and responsible and treated accordingly. An indispensable element in an invitational school is shared responsibility based on mutual respect. All programs, policies and processes should receive scrutiny to ensure this is taking place.
  3. Intentionality: Optimal human potential best can be realized by places, policies, processes and programs that invite specific pro-social behaviors and by people who make a concerted effort to respect themselves and others. Intentionality is the structure that quantifies the elements of an invitational community, enabling individuals to be measured and improved constantly.
  4. Optimism: People possess untapped potential in all areas of human endeavor. If we truly are optimistic about what each person can become, we must create places, policies, programs and processes that nurture everyone, allowing them to develop their unknown and unlimited potential.
Positive Attitudes
  • Consider the value of "positivity."

Some years ago, when William Mitchell was superintendent of a large county school district in South Carolina, he was unable to improve the learning results of his students or the morale of school district staff until he launched a program called "Power of Positive Students" that focused on building more positive attitudes and healthier self-esteem. When these essential human qualities became the goals, the academic and social levels of students were raised appreciably.

The premise of the POPS program is that a positive attitude is just as important as skills and intelligence in determining success. The program is built around four research-supported beliefs:

  1. A strong, positive relationship exists between self-concept and achievement.
  2. A positive self-concept is learned and, therefore, can be taught.
  3. Children must experience success in order to develop and sustain a positive self-concept.
  4. A positive learning climate at school and home and in the community is crucial.

The program assists faculty, staff, students and parents in building positive attitudes and life skills. This goal is accomplished largely through team building, conditioning, modeling and positive reinforcement, each of which is implemented in a systematic theme-of-the-month approach.

Since its inception, dozens of school districts nationwide have adopted this program by training key people in its principles and practices.

Parenting Education
  • An effective and sustained parent education program is a major piece of violence prevention.

The roots and substance of a child's psychosocial and intellectual persona are formed in the home, which remains a profound influence throughout the child's public school career. Yet parents are permitted to practice their parenting on a trial-and-error basis without receiving the training or guidance so desperately needed by them.

A substantive parent education program would enable parents to develop better parenting skills, resulting in healthier children in all respects. Such a program should have the following features:

  • A major orientation program for all parents of kindergarten students that stresses the complex age-developmental needs of their children. Parents would be asked to sign a contract-like agreement in which they pledge to attend five parenting events yearly during each of their children's school years. Significant emphasis also would be placed on the partnership relationship between the school and home and the need to maintain communication in that partnership.
  • The staging of five important parenting workshops at each grade level, aimed at enabling parents to be more effective in meeting their children's developmental needs at that level. These activities should take place, day and night, in school and elsewhere, to encourage total parent attendance. The PTA's help should be enlisted to phone all parents before each meeting to secure their attendance.
    In the middle school and secondary years, emphasis should be placed on topics such as conflict resolution, anger management and building healthy self-esteem in children.
  • The use of all parents as volunteers at least once a year to bring them into the schools in a positive, constructive and educative way. Their roles should be substantive so that they can be part of the instructional and developmental process of their children.
  • The use of parents in community service and career internship programs for secondary students. Parents should be called upon for their expertise and skills in these areas.
  • Parent support teams should be developed as the major format from kindergarten on so that each parent is a member of such a team throughout the 13-year cycle. Then, when problems arise, those parents can reach out to other parents. In this setting, parents, knowing that their home problems are experienced by many others, would be less reluctant to seek quick help and would be able to obtain it quite early.
  • School districts must designate the major responsibility for their parent education programs to a central-office administrator. A districtwide committee of professionals and parents should oversee the district's parenting program for the year, which should be ambitious, well-publicized and accorded high importance. Budgetary allowances must be made to develop and maintain the most effective program.
A Dual Approach
The four-step program described here is not intended to replace or compete with any of the security or disciplinary measures that schools have put in place to deal with the harsh reality of troublesome behavior today. They are intended to supplement those measures by affecting the attitudes and feelings of children more deeply, against the backdrop of the most secure and firmly disciplined school setting.

Both approaches, when taken together, would be far more effective than one or the other. An ounce of prevention and a pound of cure, in unison, can make a significant dent in reducing school violence.

Stan Friedland, a former high school principal, is CEO of Principal Services, an educational consulting firm, 10 Circle Drive, Syosset, NY 11791. E-mail: stanfree@hoflink.com