Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Musings in the Wake of Columbine - What Can Schools Do?

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Musings in the Wake of Columbine - What Can Schools Do?

Article excerpt

Until we make schools engaging learning communities whose members value those communities and feel welcome within them, we are right to think that the next Columbine could happen anywhere, Ms. Raywid and Ms. Oshiyama point out.

THERE HAVE BEEN multiple attempts to figure out the reasons for the Columbine High School tragedy. The availability of guns has been widely blamed, as has the violence depicted in films and videos. Some analysts have turned their sights on parental failure. Others have looked to deep-seated personality problems within the young assassins, while still others have focused on the seductive power of hate groups. There is probably some truth in most of these explanations, plus others, with the choice among them being largely a matter of individual perspective.

"The truth" lends itself to many interpretations. We know that if we look to psychologists for explanations of human behavior, we characteristically get different answers from what sociologists would offer and different answers from what anthropologists would offer. Educators venture answers, too. But unless they are going to content themselves with mere hand wringing, they must look to explanations that schools can do something about. Otherwise they are simply placing the problem beyond their control.

Actually, there is a good bit of knowledge suggesting directions that schools can take in order to avoid more tragedies like Columbine. It is also knowledge about which we can be fairly confident. In this article we will be reflecting on the broad strategies that strike us as most promising. They pertain to school size and organization, as well as to what we teach - both deliberately and inadvertently.

There is overwhelming evidence that violence is much less likely to occur in small schools than in large ones. In fact, not surprisingly, students behave better generally in schools where they are known. It is in large schools, where alienation often goes hand in hand with anonymity, that the danger comes. As James Garbarino of Cornell University, one of the nation's top scholars on juvenile delinquency, has put it, "If I could do one single thing [to stop the scourge of violence among juveniles], it would be to ensure that teenagers are not in high schools bigger than 400 to 500 students."1

As suggested by all the standard indicators - truancy, dropout rates, involvement rates, graffiti, vandalism, violence - youngsters in small schools rarely display the anger at the institution and the people in it that was so blatant at Columbine and is evident in many high schools elsewhere as well.

The evidence regarding school size and risk comes not only from individual school studies but also from research syntheses - analyses of relevant studies undertaken across the country. Here are claims from three such syntheses:

Larger school size is related to . . . higher levels of disorder and violence, student alienation, and teacher dissatisfaction.2

* * *

Student social behavior - as measured by truancy, discipline problems, violence, theft, substance abuse, and gang participation - is more positive in small schools.3

* * *

Research has consistently found that students at small schools are less alienated than students in large schools - and this positive effect is especially strong for students labeled "at risk."4

* * *

Behavior problems are so much greater in larger schools . . . that any possible virtue of larger size is canceled out by the difficulties of maintaining an orderly learning environment.5

The reason why size is important is because the first lesson Columbine seems to urge for schools is the need to make them genuinely user-friendly places for all students - places where everyone is welcomed into a genuine community and each student is known well by at least one adult staff member who assumes responsibility for his or her positive growth and success. …

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