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Examining the Issues on School Violence

"We have far less school violence than most people think even though people believe it is increasing," said Erwin Flaxman in his introduction of psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, the keynote speaker for a conference that explored "School Violence, Metal Detectors and Healthy Communities." "We don't distinguish among fairly innocent acts and serious acts. We react in the same way to both phenomena." As Director of the Institute on Urban and Minority Education (IUME), a sponsor of the conference, Flaxman explained the conference discussions would address the need to look at both the legitimate and misplaced fears and discrepancies.

Also sponsored by the Center for Educational Outreach and Innovation (CEO&I), the conference aimed to place these issues in a broad perspective by examining assumptions about youth, violence, schools and communities and the strategies used when dealing with school violence.

Lifton has studied and written about the many different facets of violence from Nazi doctors and Hiroshima survivors to Vietnam veterans and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and he is the author of Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism. As the Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Lifton also directs The Center on Violence and Human Survival.

"There is a kind of nostalgia for the beautiful community we have lost, which probably never existed," Lifton said. "We have always been built on change and transformation and we have to see communities as less long-lasting." With the new technologies of the Internet, he added, many people may feel closer to their counterparts elsewhere in the world than they do to their neighbors.

These social patterns of society and history can intersect with psychopathology, and when they do, a mindset is established that can lead to cult-oriented responses. Combine that with access to weapons, and it can result in situations like those brought about by Aum Shinrikyo, the cult in Japan led by Shoko Asahara that released lethal sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system at rush-hour, killing 11 people and injuring thousands of others.

Cult leaders like Asahara and their followers frequently believe that the world is beyond hope, Lifton explained. The only way to remedy the situation, in their eyes, is for society as it currently exists to be destroyed and replaced with their own superior model. Aum Shinrikyo members took matters into their own hands, through access to chemical and biological weapons, by attempting to bring about Armageddon in order to save the human race.

According to Lifton, these inclinations are present in various groups all over the world. Ordinary people are increasingly coming to the conclusion that only extreme measures can restore virtue and righteousness to society. None of us, he said, is completely free of those inner struggles. But plans and fantasies, he adds, are not the same as action.

In his research, Lifton has looked at what factors brought Aum Shinrikyo to the point of actively attempting to bring about the end of the world. These conditions include a leader-follower interaction combined with a vision of a better way of life. Asahara's personal characteristics of being a religious and paranoid intellectual combined with a deceptive manner and a grandiose sense of morality was most dangerous because of his obsession with weapons of mass destruction.

How does this relate to violence in the schools? Lifton noted that in the shootings at Columbine High School, the killers "dressed themselves up as a sort of cultic group-the Trench Coat Mafia." They found a model by visiting Web sites of the violent right.

"Columbine revealed an overemphasis on minority groups having the potential for violence," Lifton said. "Lost in this is the potential for violence in mostly white rural areas. Rural white families who feel badly treated by society are the groups from which people who form neo-Nazi groups come."

A panel discussion following Lifton's presentation was moderated by Joshua Halberstam, author of Everyday Ethics and Virtues and Values. Panelists included Joy Dreyfoos, author of Adolescents at Risk  and Safe Passage: Making It Through Adolescence in a Risky Society; Peter Coleman, Co-Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (ICCCR) at Teachers College; and Rasulie Lewis, Program Director of Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, a multi-service agency in Central Harlem.

Dreyfoos, whose work focuses on helping young people reduce their vulnerability to high-risk behavior, commented that, "School violence is the failure of our society to adequately engage and challenge our children."

Coleman, in his remarks, noted that people needing a sense of purpose are more likely to seek out a relationship with a cult leader as a way of meeting those needs. Cult membership also provides isolated people with a sense of inclusion in a special kind of group that offers them dignity and self-esteem.

Young people who find role models who use violent methods to meet their needs have to be given another option, Coleman said. He suggests that adults within a school system need to model how to resolve disputes through negotiation and mediation. "If you can address the structure, you can begin to change the climate," he explained.

Lewis is working with the ICCCR on violence prevention, safety and mediation in the schools. Adults known as "peacemakers" go into the classrooms to provide another adult in situations where conflicts between parents and the school need to be resolved.

As a result of the work Rheedlen is doing in the schools, Lewis said adjacent churches in the community as well as the police department have requested help in the same kind of training given to the peacemakers.

To deal with school violence, the panelists agreed, there has to be more done than just eliminating violent incidents. "Peace is not just the absence of war," Coleman said. "You can control violence, but you can also develop things you think need to be there for everybody that meets their needs." To do that, he said, a structure needs to be in place that provides a goal to move toward, and the skills necessary to make that happen need to be developed.

Coleman also mentioned that when a crisis occurs and people are dying, it gets media attention, which drives mass attention and political attention, which ultimately drives funding. By talking to journalists about conflict and conflict resolution, a case can be made for looking for constructive solutions and preventive strategies.

Dreyfoos added that, "Sometimes there is a lot to be said for political action." She advocated getting young people to work on the political issues involved to make things better.

Lewis, however, cautioned that though youngsters can be used to make a point politically, they do not have the power of the vote. "Kids can be good and they can be destructive, but they cannot carry the burden of what needs to be done," he said. "Adults need to be the ones to do the work."

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