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Examining School Violence

On April 20, 1999, two teenagers dressed in black trench coats arrived at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, with an arsenal of weapons. They succeeded in carrying out one of the deadliest school massacres in American history, creating a national concern that led to a large-scale investigation into violence as a public health issue.

The occurrence of previous incidents in Oregon and Arkansas, where children in schools shot their classmates and teachers, and in Conyers, Georgia, only one month after the Columbine killings, narrowed the focus to school violence, teenage violence and gun control.

The media has put these communities in the forefront of the search for the causes of teenage violence. But violence has been a concern of inner-city and minority communities for decades. Long before there was an incident in Littleton, Colorado, Teachers College faculty and institutes were committed to understanding and ameliorating the causes and problems of school violence and the understanding that violence is not limited to weapons. An increasing number of incidents of sexual harassment, another form of violence and abuse, are also coming to light in schools throughout the country.

Shortly after the incident in Littleton, The New York Times quoted Dr. Jim Mercy, associate director for science in the division of violence prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as saying, "The reality is that schools are very safe environments for our kids." Yet, the massacre was the sixth multiple-victim shooting in 18 months. People yearn for explanations and are disturbed to think that not everything is under their control, the article noted.

What makes the Littleton shootings so unusual is that it seemed as if all the pieces were in place that should have been. The county had one of the few juvenile assessment centers in the country. It is an affluent and well-educated community. Health care is not a problem for the children in Littleton schools. Eric Harris, one of the gunmen in the shootings, was under psychiatric care. Yet, in spite of things being seemingly under control, young people died at the hands of their peers.

In the aftermath of the shootings, President Clinton convened a meeting to address the causes of incidents such as these. Within a month of the shootings, the Senate passed a bill that would require child safety devices on handguns, though there was opposition to adding more restrictions.

Clinton also ordered an investigation by the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission to examine marketing practices by the entertainment industries to determine if they were luring children to watch violent films, listen to explicit music and play murderous video games. This followed an announcement by Surgeon General David Satcher of a new study that will look at the roles of popular culture, peer pressure, mental illness and the availability of guns in triggering homicidal rage in young people.

A statement signed by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry concluded that, "viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behavior, particularly in children." Research, they said, clearly shows that young people have developed a higher tolerance for violent behavior in general.

CNN reported in August, 1999, that four out of five middle school students admit that they act like bullies at least once a month. A study conducted in a Midwestern middle school found that 80 percent of students said their behavior included physical aggression, social ridicule, teasing, name-calling and issuing threats.

Although statistics show that school violence declined from 1991 to 1997, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that it is still unacceptably high. Between 1994 and 1998, studies indicated 173 school-associated incidents, most of which were homicides involving the use of firearms. While the total number of events has decreased since 1993, the total number of multiple-victim events has increased, with an average of five multiple-victim events per year. The National Center for Education Statistics also reported that there were almost twice as many gangs in schools in 1995 compared to 1989.

Schools, for their part, have instituted increased security measures with surveillance cameras and security guards monitoring activities throughout school buildings. In some places, students have to swipe a computerized ID card just to get in the door or pass through metal detectors and trade in canvas backpacks for transparent bags to make it difficult to conceal a weapon.

Yet not everyone agrees that physical security is the answer, since Columbine High School did have security guards and Heritage High School in Conyers had surveillance cameras. Many districts are focusing on recognizing and defusing threats that could lead to violence. Teachers are being taught what symptoms to be aware of that would indicate students who are prone to violence.

Teachers College continues to be concerned with studying the school environment, assessing the difficulties and the causes of violence, finding solutions to the problems, and disseminating the information to the public. Some of the initiatives taking place through the College today include a study funded by the Spencer Foundation to look at the risk factors for aggressive behavior among middle school students. Professors Marla Brassard, Charles Basch, Suniya Luthar and Margaret Terry Orr are working with student fellows to examine steps schools can take to prevent the development of aggressiveness in young people.

As Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (ICCCR), Assistant Professor Peter Coleman is continuing the work of Morton Deutsch, E.L. Thorndike Professor Emeritus, who directed the Center for many years. Deutsch was a pioneer in the study of intergroup relations, conflict resolution, social conformity and the social psychology of justice. Coleman works with his staff to bring conflict resolution skills to schools and others in the community. Through programs such as the Peaceful Kids ECSEL (Early Childhood Social-Emotional Learning) Program, the Center works with children, teachers and parents to introduce skills for constructive conflict resolution.

"Children, Culture and Violence," a conference coordinated by Professor John Broughton, brought together experts who research and address issues of school violence. Virtually every presentation focused on two fundamental questions: What are the roots of violence? And how can we break the cycle of violence?

Erwin Flaxman, Director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME) at Teachers College, through a grant from the Metropolitan Life Foundation, is engaged in providing a series of short analyses that look at issues that are significant to scholars. The grant not only allows them to work with project leaders to determine the impact of what they are doing, but also allowed IUME to hold three conferences that looked at ways to improve efforts to address school violence issues.

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