America's Schools Confront Violence

Article excerpt

SCHOOLS, once considered a safe haven for nurturing the future leaders of America, seem to be experiencing the perils that lurk beyond the schoolyard. Given the violence of the times, is it really surprising that schools, ideally centers of possibility and learning, experience similar instances of people out of control? Educational philosopher John Dewey's observation that schools reflect the values and problems inherent in society may be just as timely in the 1990s as it was in the early 1900s.

Dramatic instances of violence in American society inundate our consciousness. It seems to be everywhere. Violence has leapt from television and movie screens into real-life "live action." The Waco standoff, the bombing of the World Trade Center, carjackings, ordinary people coming to blows at Sunday afternoon football and Little League games, and drive-by shootings cloud the adult world. These scenes are not part of movies that simply can be turned off with a remote control. These scenarios are among the many frightening acts of violence actually happening in neighborhoods and communities across the nation.

Too many individuals avoid believing reality until it strikes home through their children. Popular culture targeting the lucrative youth market routinely glorifies violence. Consider the frenzied MTV videos of Madonna and Guns 'N Roses, graphic television tortures and murders, Ice Tea rap songs promoting cop killings, or video games in which losers disappear in balls of flame.

Schools, besides being a community within, are part of the larger community. School-age youth do commit crimes in their own neighborhoods. These same destructive behaviors and aggressive attitudes come with troubled children into classrooms. Confrontations with peers, drug deals, or parental conflicts may originate in homes or on the streets, but too often reach unhappy resolutions during the school day. Debilitating poverty and complicated family relationships that result in little parenting, alienation, and anger serve as kindling for a fire that bums within, waiting for the crucial spark. Such fundamental breakdowns of society that contribute to violence permeate schools and must be dealt with daily by educational personnel. As violence has escalated in the larger society, it has spilled over into the schools as well.

A research team from Xavier University, in conjunction with the National School Boards Association, conducted a national survey of school executives to determine the extent of violence in the nation's schools. According to their responses, violence is impacting schools across the land from large urban centers to backcountry Texas towns to upscale suburban districts. All schools are vulnerable.

School administrators report that the sheer number of acts of school violence is on the rise. Even more alarming is the growing trend of violent acts infiltrating not only middle schools, but elementary schools as well. The majority of middle school principals and elementary principals note an upturn.

Incidents of violence have become a fact of life in most high schools. Remember those tales of yesteryear detailing the schoolteacher literally wrestling control of the classroom from the bullies? Today, as they strive for adulthood, youths still provoke confrontations with authority figures and their peers to settle differences and to seek approval or power. However, elementary schools are becoming the new battlegrounds, experiencing the severity of problems once confined to secondary schools. This disturbing development may have its roots in a myriad of factors, including the breakdown of family structure, the ethos of the larger community, the influence of peer groups, or a volatile mix of complicated causes. Violence has become commonplace in almost all levels, types, and sizes of school. Yet, the majority of administrators consider the news coverage "overblown."

One plausible cause could be that administrators are in a state of denial about the actual level of violence in their schools. …