School violence is once again making headlines in New York City. The trigger for the latest round of media attention was a breakdown in the system for processing student suspensions. Suspended students weren't receiving hearings within the mandated period, so they remained in school, where they continued their disruptive behavior. Teachers and administrators complained to their unions, and the newspapers, always eager for a sensational headline ("Mayhem 101!" screamed The Daily News), picked up the story. Mayor Bloomberg had to do something.
Unfortunately, the Mayor's response was as short-sighted as it was predictable. He agreed to speed up the process for processing student suspensions, of course. But the main thrust of his "school safety initiative" was a police crackdown on disruptive students. At a press conference announcing his plan, the Mayor said that from now on the policy would be "zero tolerance" and "three strikes and you're out." He went on to say: "If I have to put a police officer next to every kid, we'll do it!"
Research does not back up Bloomberg's faith in zero tolerance. A study by the National Center for Education Statistics (Skiba & Peterson, 1999) found that after four years of implementation, zero-tolerance policies had little effect at previously unsafe schools. The study did conclude, however, that such initiatives are successful in one respect: They make the public feel that officials are taking action. And that's exactly what the Mayor's school safety initiative adds up to: public relations. To get the unions and the tabloids off his back, the Mayor threw slogans (and police) at symptoms. In that way, the Mayor deflected attention from the Department of Education's bureaucratic screw-up and onto a group the public loves to hate: "problem" teenagers.
I guess you can't blame him for that. He's a politician, and we've come to expect no better from our political leaders. But as the Mayor and Chancellor Klein go beyond rhetoric to improve school safety in substantive ways, I have some observations and suggestions they might consider:
For starters, let's not lose perspective: Overall, schools are still the safest places for kids to be-safer than the street and, sadly, safer than home. And New York City schools are not experiencing a dramatic increase in crime. Figures from the Police Department and the Department of Education released in December show only a slight increase in school crime over last year. The tabloids do a huge disservice when they sensationalize school violence and give the impression that public schools are blackboard jungles.
The Mayor was praised for taking personal responsibility for the situation and taking strong action. But why were the 12 schools the Mayor chose as the targets for his initiative allowed to get out of control in the first place? Sending in the cops—the equivalent of a government declaring martial law—is nothing to be proud of. It's an admission of failure. And by letting a school deteriorate to the extent that you have to send in the police, you stigmatize the school (the media immediately began referring to the targeted schools as "the dirty dozen"), and undermine the authority of the principal and teachers who will still be there, trying to educate kids, when the media turn their attention elsewhere and the police leave.
The centerpiece of the Mayor's strategy for turning troubled schools around is to remove disruptive students. Underlying this approach is the assumption that a few bad apples are ruining things for everybody; get them out and the teachers will be able to teach. (Do I hear echoes of President Bush's "evil doers"—now the cause of everything wrong with the world?)
Unfortunately, this "solution" creates more problems than it solves. For without major changes in the way the school functions, the expulsion of troublemakers all too often reveals a "second string" eager to take their place. And when you kick out the troublemakers, you have to provide someplace for them to go. These "second opportunity schools" are expensive, and over the years have a poor track record of success.
You're much better off preventing disruptive behavior from getting out of hand in the first place. That's the responsibility of the adults—everyone from the teachers and principals to the Chancellor, the Mayor, the Governor, and the President who are responsible for ensuring that the schools have the resources to address the needs of their students.
The Mayor was correct in stating that a relatively few schools account for a disproportional number of incidents. These troubled schools need special attention: not more police, but stronger leadership, better teaching, more resources, and more attention to strengthening the bonds of community on which good education is based.
What of the great majority of schools that are not on the Mayor's list? Physical safety is not an issue in most of these schools, but emotional safety is. Parents, educators, and students acknowledge that discipline problems are on the increase. Dissing, threats, and fighting among students are interfering with teaching and learning. And verbal abuse and bullying can lead to physical violence (witness the Columbine killings, carried out by two ostracized teens). We have lots of work to do to make our schools places where adults and students treat each other with respect.
Yet, strangely, this challenge is receiving little attention—even though it is responsible for much student suffering, a high degree of teacher turnover, and a great deal of wasted time. Under pressure to do everything necessary to raise students' academic performance as measured by standardized tests, teachers report that they have little time to teach students life skills, foster good citizenship, or invest in strengthening their relationships with their students and their students' relationships with each other. Virtually all of the available professional development resources are focused on improving test scores in reading and math. Social studies, current events, the arts, physical education, and extra-curricular activities are being devalued and neglected.
The best teachers and principals know instinctively that good education is built on good relationships. Good teaching is equal parts knowing how to teach your subject and knowing the students—respecting them, appreciating them, engaging them.
I'm not pulling this out of my hat. Unlike zero tolerance, this approach to teaching is backed by scientific evidence. Final results are in from the rigorous scientific study
of ESR Metro's Resolving Conflict Creatively Program
. In a report released in December 2003, which covered both years of the two-year study, Columbia University researchers found that compared with children who had little or no exposure to the RCCP, children whose teachers provided regular instruction in the RCCP curriculum developed more positively. They tended to see their social world in a less hostile way, to see violence as unacceptable, and to choose competent nonviolent strategies for resolving conflict rather than aggressive ones. The program had these benefits for children regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic level, or neighborhood.
What's more, incorporating the RCCP into the classroom promoted academic learning. The researchers found a direct association between the amount of RCCP exposure and improvement in mathematics achievement, as measured by the standardized tests. (Because the reading test was changed in the second year of the study, researchers havenít yet been able to report on how these scores compared.)
That learning conflict resolution skills was linked to improved academic performance didn't surprise us, of course. Effective instruction and good relationships go together—that's what RCCP is all about.
So instead of putting a cop next to every "disruptive kid," let's assign more skilled and caring educators, provide the support they need to address their students' needs, and imbue them with a broader view of what it means to be educated.
Tom Roderick is Executive Director of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility (formerly ESR Metro). This article originally appeared in the January-February 2004 issue of ESR Metro's newsletter, Action News. Tom welcomes email responses to this article at: firstname.lastname@example.org