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Reports and Conferences: Getting the Word Out

In October of 1999, Teachers College hosted a Conference on Children, Culture and Violence under the direction of John Broughton, Associate Professor of Psychology and Education. Other conferences and literature are continuing to be offered through work being done by Erwin Flaxman, Director of the Institute on Urban and Minority Education (IUME). Through these initiatives, the College remains an important source of information and education for policymakers and educators who must make decisions about issues of school violence.

In a panel discussion on "Enculturating Violence" presented at the Conference on Children, Culture and Violence, Assistant Professor Nancy Lesko discussed the need for connection in her presentation about "The Construction of Male Behavior and Identity." "Violence is the final link in a chain that begins with basic disconnection between children and parents," she said.

Boys, she explained, are four times more likely to kill themselves than girls and are less likely to graduate from high school. "Many are sad, confused and hurt, and feel they have to fight vulnerable feelings."

Panelist Mark Bracher of Kent State University elaborated by saying that the root cause of violent behavior is a "vulnerable identity." Citing a study by James Gilligan, Bracher said that men in prison committed violent acts to enhance their identities and that violent behavior happened in defense of one's identity being threatened in some way.

In order to reduce the tendency toward violent behavior, Bracher said that children need to feel less vulnerable and more resilient. What needs to happen, he said, is an alteration in what makes up a child's identity, particularly the principles we use to evaluate and compare differences. There also needs to be a reduction in the opportunity and resources necessary to being destructive, and an increase in the opportunity for more benign things like body image and performance to be enhanced.

Kenynote speaker James Garbarino, Professor of Human Development at Cornell University, spoke about five risk factors leading to violence, which were compiled through interviews with young people in jail.

The first risk factor is rejection. Kids in any culture who are rejected exhibit what is bad in that culture, he said. Rejection can take the form of parental abandonment, abuse or impoverishment, or it can be subtle, school-based rejection.

The second is spiritual emptiness, which he described as a hole that needs to be filled. This emptiness can lead to a sense of no limits to behavior and the feeling of being alone and angry.

Third is the structure of adult authority within the family. Legitimate adult authority exists on behalf of justice and is not exhibited in a tyrannical manner. "Most acts of violence are made to relieve acts of perceived injustice," Garbarino explained. And the greatest injustice is the lack of respect. Adults need to take charge of situations, Garbarino said, because "when kids believe adults are no longer powerful, they take matters into their own hands. Many school shooters see themselves as avengers…as doing something right that other people aren't brave enough to do or committed enough to do."

The fourth factor is social toxicity. "Some kids are particularly vulnerable to social toxins around them and will do whatever is bad in the culture," he said. One source of social toxicity comes from the various media available to young people, such as point-and-shoot video games. People have a natural inhibition toward killing that has to be trained out of them, Garbarino explained. The army uses the same type of video games that children play to train soldiers to kill.

The fifth factor is the influence of peer culture. "You could have a perfect understanding of a kid, but if you don't know his peers, you can't accurately perceive the risk," Garbarino explained. With the birth of the Internet, young people are able to find others who think like they do. Things that these young people might not do alone tend to be easier to do when they have others who support them.

In an effort to determine what works and does not work in dealing effectively with violence and aggression, the Metropolitan Life Foundation is supporting a program that will look at the impact of specific projects being undertaken and analyze whether changes need to be made to improve their effectiveness. Erwin Flaxman is heading that program, and through the initiative, is offering literature to educators and parents that describes research findings. In addition, the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME) headed by Flaxman, offered conferences that addressed issues of school violence.

At one conference held in March, 1999, Dr. Beverly Coleman-Miller, visiting professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and nationally renowned authority on domestic violence, delivered the keynote address. She spoke about school violence as a community health problem that must be dealt with systematically through the child, family, neighborhood and community. These relationships act as an ecology, stimulating or reducing occurrences of youth violence. Her address opened a two-day workshop in which participants examined the assumptions and dynamics of their programs to determine their effectiveness.

Another conference, in the fall of 2000, looked at more than 100 projects being undertaken in the area of school violence to determine what types of assistance the leaders of these projects need. Through this needs assessment, IUME and Teachers College can provide assistance through organizations, agencies and universities that have the expertise and capability of helping these project leaders meet their goals.

As part of IUME's outreach to scholars, literature on the topics germane to issues of school violence is being compiled and distributed to the public. One piece in particular, written by Gene Maeroff, former national education writer for The New York Times, and current director of The Hechinger Institute for Education and the Media at Teachers College, discusses the link between school violence and media.

Maeroff looked at media coverage of juvenile violence and its effect on public opinion, violence as media entertainment, and violence in print and visual media. He cited a report that says that although incidents of youth violence have been decreasing, public fears about such incidents have been mounting. Other studies indicate that "the media (may) help stir fear by focusing on the relatively few fatal incidents inside school buildings." He references Kathryn C. Montgomery of the Center for Media Education as saying that two-thirds of the media's coverage of crime deals with acts by juveniles though they are responsible for only one-third of the crime committed.

"Television programs, movies, video games, and even pop music…seem not to hesitate to depict violence," Maeroff wrote. He noted that video games, not in existence a generation ago, include such fare as one which allows players to "inflict all sorts of gradations of injury, from shooting off arms, to putting bullets into the enemy's throat, to putting a bullet in the 'right' place in the stomach to make the guts exude."

Although studies indicate that violence in electronic media can be particularly harmful because children relate more readily to visual images, some say that those most inclined to watch excessive violence may already be predisposed to violence. Maeroff also cites reports that found that watching violence does tend to desensitize young viewers and lead to aggressive behavior.

He summarizes his report by saying that while most editors believe that events sensational by nature should not be confused with sensationalism, with the increase of Internet news sites, there is a new rush to be first with a story on the Web. Schools, he cautions, in their quest to eschew violence, should create educational models rather than enforcement models-paying close attention to school climate, practicing democracy within schools, teaching students conflict resolution skills and using peer mediation.

Other publications written as part of the IUME Metropolitan Life Project are:

Girls and Violence (Dr. Jeanne Weiler, Hunter College), which points to risk factors for the slightly increasing incidence of violence among girls, and makes the critical point that girls, when arrested, are likely to be arrested for "status" crimes, like running away, prostitution, or curfew violations, not for violent offenses.

Victims of Crime in the Elementary, Middle, and Secondary Schools, in which author Dr. Daniel Flannery outlines the psychological and social response of youth to victimization. He also looks at necessary intervention.

Professor Peter Coleman, Director of ICCCR at Teachers College, is the author of a publication that explains systematic responses to preventing and ameliorating violence in the schools at all levels-through the students, programs and curriculum, teachers, administration and com.

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