The tragic realities of the school killings in Littleton, Colorado, and similar instances of violence involving today's youth, have educators, policymakers and communities searching for causes as well as methods of prevention. Hit lists, posted on Internet sites and plans made by high school students to "get even" when they are teased are symptoms of what we already know: Bullying, teasing and discrimination are big problems for American children.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2000), overall, our schools are improving. Nationally, the school dropout rate has steadily declined, the number of students with disabilities who are educated in regular classrooms has increased by nearly 20 percent in ten years, and almost 60 percent of our high school seniors go to college.
These improvements can perhaps be attributed to the strong focus on academic achievement during the past 20 years. Necessarily, our teachers have been stressing the importance of knowledge and skills. However, there needs to be a renewed emphasis on the education of character. We need to focus on the development of good people as well as good learners. Philosopher Martin Burber (1947) advised teachers that "education worthy of the name is essentially education of character."
Do good people taunt and ridicule those who are different? Do they exclude and isolate those who are not able to make the athletic team? Do they mock individuals with learning disabilities because they cannot "make the grade"? Do they bring guns and bombs to school and kill and injure their classmates?
Maybe good people do these things because they lack the information and understanding that lead to empathy. Maybe our students would behave like good people if they knew that hundreds of students commit suicide each year because of harassment. For example, students perceived to be gay or lesbian are often ridiculed and harassed. It is believed that this treatment contributes heavily to gay and lesbian youth accounting for approximately one-third of all youth suicides (U.S. DHHS, 1989). Maybe fewer students would be tempted to act out their frustrations in negative ways if they were shown how to be kinder to each other.
The emphasis in our schools on competition and academics often does not promote generosity or a commitment to the welfare of others. To the contrary, students graduate thinking that being smart means looking out for themselves.
Many societal factors contributed to the atrocities that occurred at Columbine High School. We might think of the factors as legs of a chair. One leg is fascination with violent media. Another leg is easy access to weapons. The third is flawed character. It is unlikely that by itself one element will tum a brooding student into a killer. But together, all three elements spell trouble. What we need to realize is that it takes more than just three legs to stabilize a chair.
Teachers and school officials need to look at the fourth leg of the chair - the taunting, teasing and harassment that causes students to crawl into a shell or, in the case of some students, helps push them over the edge.
No longer can teasing and harassment be thought of as "kids being kids." In today's society, such taunting can create a hostile environment causing some students to feel hatred and plot revenge. If schools fail to develop and implement policies to bring incidents of harassment to the attention of appropriate officials, they are missing opportunities to create safer learning environments and shape better people. If the officials do not take harassment seriously itmay be inferred that the school allowed the inevitable result - a hostile environment where the unthinkable could happen.
Can we totally prevent violence in schools? No, we can't. Can we focus on a proactive intervention process that is more than likely to curtail such violence? Yes, we can if teachers, administrators, parents and students make sure the following policies and procedures exist in their schools.
Schools must establish, publicize, update and enforce school policies that respect and protect the diversity of all students. Written, formal school policies help prevent discrimination, harassment and verbal abuse of students by their classmates. Policies and guidelines should address:
- Equal access to education and school activities;
- Anti-harassment; and,
- Multiculturalism and diversity.
Teachers, administrators, counselors, and students should be trained in violence prevention and conflict resolution to reduce incidents of harassment and violence. To become certified or re-certified, teachers, counselors and administrators should be required to receive training in the following areas:
- Violence prevention - how to intervene when students are harassed or threatened by other students;
- Crisis intervention - how to respond to students who seek help because of isolation or emotional and physical problems;
- Counseling referrals - how to make appropriate referrals for students to counselors, including family counselors and youth service agencies; and,
- Diversity workshops - how to meet the needs of a heterogeneous student body.
Developing site-based, peer support groups allows students to be supported by other students. Isolation and loneliness can lead to attempted suicide, running away, dropping out of school and a host of behavioral problems. Weekly support groups help to counter isolation and give an ongoing voice to young people who need to talk about their feelings and self-image. The following should be considered when starting any support group:
- Groups should be open to all students.
- A faculty advisor trained in the needs of disenfranchised students must be assigned to attend each meeting, listen to students and communicate their needs to the administration.
- The existence of peer support groups should be widely publicized within the school to all students, faculty and parents.
- Faculty advisors and their peer groups should work with school counselors, who aren't specially trained to help the untrained counselor gain experience to reach out to students who are becoming isolated.
Inclusive Curricula and Policies
Schools should include diversity issues in their curricula and provide opportunities to connect with isolated students. The classroom is the heart of the school experience. Discussion of student issues and recognition of the contribution that all students can make to the school community should be integrated into all subject areas and departments in an age appropriate fashion. The following should be considered:
- Diversity programs which address awareness, acceptance and existing stereotypes and prejudices should be instituted and available to all students.
- Academic departments should research ways to include the experiences and contributions of all types of individuals as they pertain to their disciplines.
- Schools should identify students who are isolated and develop programs of inclusion.
By incorporating these strategies, schools will be able to create safer and more inviting learning environments where tolerance and understanding are the norm. School would be a place where character development is not left to chance and is as high a priority as academics. Counselors and administrators would mediate potentially volatile situations by conducting interventions that would help enable conflicting groups of students to have a better understanding of each other. A proactive approach to conflict resolution is not foolproof but is our best strategy for preventing violence in our schools.
Barber, Martin. 1947. Between man and man.
(R.G. Smith, Trans.). London: Kegan Paul.
National Center for Educational Statistics. (2000).
Digest of Education Statistics. Washington DC:
U.S. Government Printing Office.
Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian
Youth. Prevention of Health Problems Among
Gay and Lesbian Youth. (August 1994) p. 13.
United States Department of Health and Human
Services. (1989). Washington, DC: U.S.
Government Printing Office.