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Fear and Loathing in the Classroom: A Candid Look at School Violence and the Policies and Practices That Address It

Fear and Loathing in the Classroom: A Candid Look at School Violence and the Policies and Practices That Address It
Journal of Disability Policy Studies Volume 14, Number 1, Summer 2003, pp. 17 - 22.
Vance L. Austin

Article Summary

The issue of violence in schools has garnered popular attention in recent years due, in part, to the passage of the Gun Free Schools Act of 1994 and the shootings at schools in Columbine, Colorado, and Paducah, Kentucky. The knee-jerk response of school boards and school district administrators has been, in many instances, the unilateral adoption of zero-tolerance policies designed to a) help rid the schools of "incorrigible" students, and b) send an implacable warning to first-time offenders. Such strident policies may be at a minimum excessive and unwarranted, considering the lack of empirical date to support them. In addition, although the media has focused national attention on relatively isolated and anomalous events, this attention has helped to galvanize public opinion already sensitized to the issue of school violence.

In this excellent paper, Austin notes that the 1997 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) have been broadly misinterpreted as providing legal protection for students with disabilities against the disciplinary measures adopted by many school districts. In truth, he notes that these amendments ensure support for the use of extraordinary disciplinary measures, such as suspension and expulsion, provided they do not contravene a student's right to both due process and a free and appropriate public education. The amendments further permit the unilateral removal of students with disabilities for weapons or drug offenses, whether or not they are a manifestation of a student's disability. In addition, when a hearing officer determines that maintaining the current placement of a student with a disability is substantially likely to result in injury to him or her or to others, that hearing officer may remove the student to an interim alternative education placement for up to 45 days. After 45 days have elapsed, if there is evidence that the student needs to remain in an alternative educational placement, school officials may request subsequent extensions of up to 45 days. School officials may also seek a court order to remove a child with a disability from school or change the child's current placement if they believe that keeping him or her in that placement may result in injury to the child or to others.

Effective prevention through screening for various predisposing factors that suggest the potential for violent behavior has also been recommended (Borum, Fein, Vossekuil, & Berglund, 1999; Burns, Dean, & Jacob-Timm, 2001; Hazler & Carney, 2000; Morrison & Skiba, 2001). Several approaches that have shown some predictive reliability in identifying students most likely to commit violent acts have been recommended (Burns, et al., 2001). The most promising of these are a) informal early warning checklists and "profiling" characteristics and conditions (Cohen, 1999; Hazler & Carney, 2000; Sandhu, 2000), b) the Systematic Screening for Behavior Disorders (SSBD) checklist (Walker & Severson, 1997, in Burns, et al., 2001), c) the My Worst School Experience Scale (MWSES; Hyman, Berna, Kohr, & DuCette, in Burns et al., 2001), and d) the Pathways of Ideas and Behaviors approach (Borum et al., 1999, in Burns, et al., 2001).

Austin suggests that some researchers have cautioned that no one method of risk assessment for the commission of violence is ideal, due to the low base rate of violent acts committed in schools; however, an array of effective risk assessment and management strategies clearly can be used as preemptive measures (Burns, et al., 2001). In addition, any risk-screening instrument used by schools and should meet two criteria: It must produce reliable assessment, and it must provide quality data that facilitate the development of an effective intervention. Finally, effective risk assessment should consider the impact of a school's ability to provide early intervention, the existing school climate, and the schools discipline policy. He goes on to delineate components that make violence prevention programs effective which are briefly listed below.

Teaching Acceptance Diversity. An important aspect of any violence-prevention is helping students appreciate diversity across a spectrum of difference that encompasses race, ethnicity, learning, and gender (Perlstein, 2000). This can best be accomplished by teaching children at an early age to celebrate and understand diversity. The current trend toward inclusive education represents a positive move in that direction.

Self-Esteem Building and Social Skills Training. The Resolving Conflict Creativity Program (RCCP) prescribes a kindergarten through Grade 12 classroom curriculum that incorporates the skills of empathy, active listening, assertiveness, the expression of feeling in appropriate ways, perspective-taking, cooperation, and negotiation (Lantieri & Patti, 1998). In a related study, students with emotional disorders acted as student trainers to teach appropriate social interactions to their peers with emotional disorders. The results indicated that both trainers and trainees derived benefits, including improved social skills that were maintained and generalized across settings (Blake, Wang, Crtledge, & Gardner, 2000).

Conflict Resolution Through Peer Mediation. A significant component of many violence-prevention programs is conflict resolution, most typically accomplished through some form of peer mediation (Garibaldi, Blanchard, & Brooks, 1996; Lantieri & Patti, 1998; Lovell & Richardson, 2001; Skiba & Peterson, 2000; Speaker & Peterson, 2000). Peer mediation is described in both the RCCP (Lantieri & Patti, 1998) and S.T.O.P. the Violence (Lovell & Richardson, 2001) programs. The rationale that supports the value of peer mediation has evolved from a growing belief that students should be included in the school as participants in policy making and community building. As such, they should have a role in the development of a nonviolent, inclusive atmosphere (Curwin, 1995; Edwards, 2001; Kohn, 1996).

Family and Community Involvement. Two of the five critical factors identified in one study as the principal causes of school violence and drug use (Poland, 1994; Speaker & Petersen, 2000). Thus, if the family is a catalyst of violence that can generalize to the school, it would seem prudent to include its constituents in any prevention program. Besides acting as a clearinghouse for essential family services such as health care and family counseling, schools should provide opportunities for families to be involved during instructional time and in after-school activities (e.g., parent volunteers for various in-school duties and after-school tutoring, chaperones for special events).

The Classroom as Community. Finally, an essential component of any violence-prevention program is that of community building. Earlier studies have supported the importance of developing a positive school climate-one that honors diversity, provides a forum for dissent, and values the contributions of every student (Poland, 1994). Similarly, educators need to address the purpose of classroom management. In an innovative approach to this issue, Kohn (1996) suggested that teachers determine whether their goal is to inculcate compliance or encourage democratic skills engendered through partnership with and empowerment of their students.

In closing, Austin has provided a thorough examination of best practices research and has provided the reader with a rubric of the key elements in planning an effective violence-prevention program.


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