The words violence and children have become more tightly bound as the years have gone by. It used to be that a child was sheltered from such things as murders, rapes, assaults, and drug charges. Today children are being murdered, raped, and assaulted; they are murdering, raping, and assaulting others and they are using and selling drugs. Growing up in the United States today is hard. There are few places where children can feel safe and be productive. School was once considered a safe haven, a respite from social ailments; today school is as much of a threat, sometimes more, as walking down the street at night. This paper will look at what is taking place in schools today, what the consequences are and some possibilities for ameliorating the school environment.
So, what is taking place in schools? Most would say learning, this is only partially true. The truth is that students are seeing more and more violence in schools, and less and less productive learning. "A [National School Boards Association] survey shows that violence has increased each year over the last five years in 82 percent of the nation's school systems" (Maginnis par 7). Students and teachers are seeing everything from petty theft and vandalism to murder and rape in their classrooms. Guns and gangs are more prevalent in schools today, as are metal detectors and security guards. The Children's Defense Fund reports that every day 135,000 children bring guns to school. "Estimates suggest that almost 5,000 gangs exist nationally providing memberships to a quarter of a million people. In some cities, especially those reporting recent gang problems, 90% of gang members are juveniles (Kilmer 2). Students across America are being accosted in the hallways, bathrooms and even classrooms of their schools.
Each of us has a very distinct idea of who is a victim and who is a prepetrator. Research indicates that the profile victim is a black or latino student, attending a public school. In addition, victims are usually the younger kids, who have moved around three or more times in five years. They are also usually children living in a household with an income of $50,000 or more. The children who are victimized in schools are considered vulnerable, they are the younger, weaker, less popular students. The offenders on the other hand are usually black or hispanic males with a history of physical or sexual abuse. In addition, offenders are generally alcohol and drug users (Marginnis par 25).
The consequences of such violence in schools are astounding and profound. To begin with, violence in schools takes away from the quality of education students receive. All the tension in the classrooms deters from both learning and teaching. Teachers report that the majority of their time in the classroom is spent disciplining students rather than teaching. In other words, there are children in each classroom, who may have a great deal of potential, who are not receiving the attention they need from teachers in order to succeed. Rather than focusing on academics, teachers must act as security guards.
Teaching is hard enough when students come to class, but it is impossible when students are absent from class. In 1984, the Under Secretary of Education reported that "eight percent of high school students missed at least one day each month because they were afraid of violence" (Maginnis par 1). In the past 13 years the percentage of absenteeism has risen. Students are afraid to go to school because they know that there is a possibility that they will be shot, raped, stabbed or simply harassed. In addition, students must face drug dealers and gang bangers. In some cases, students are so afraid of being in school that they transfer schools or even dropout. Such was the case of a young girl named Nicki, 16. Nicki was attacked with a knife by a gang which stole her walkman. Nicki immediately reported the incident to the police and her attackers were jailed. The young girl, however, continued to be harassed by the fellow gang members of her attackers, that's when Nicki decided to switch schools. In an interview, Nicki had this to say: "My friends were dead against it [changing schools], but I wasn't going to be able to finish school if I was in a constant state of fear. The next school I went to was aware of the problems I had with these guys, and made sure they were kept off grounds. I felt a lot better. School was hard enough without having to fear for your life" (Milne 2).
In addition to poorer quality education and absenteeism, violence and fear of victimization in schools results in an inability to focus on academic tasks. Even when students come to school and the class settles down, it is very difficult to focus students' attention on academic tasks. Most students are too preoccupied with what is going to happen when lunch hour arrives or when they pass another student in the hallway.
Violence and youth, as stated earlier, are highly correlated. Children are gaining access to guns and drugs and joining gangs at earlier ages. When you are young, most parents tell you not to talk to strangers, never to walk around at night by yourself, they tell which neighborhoods to stay out of and what type of person to avoid. Today, children need to be warned about other children. The violence children experience is no longer isolated to the dark corners of bad neighborhoods, it has invaded the schools systems and is preventing children from learning.
What's the solution? It all sounds so dismal--10-year-olds bringing guns to school, joining gangs and smoking crack. The answer, I believe, begins with parents. A parent who is informed about the activities and whereabouts of their children reduces the likelihood that their child will be involve in gang, drug use and violent acts. In addition, parents, as always, must communicate to their children the traditional do's and dont's, like don't talk to strangers and don't open the door to strangers. Parents are the most influencial people in a child's life, whether the child likes it or not.
The second way to minimize children's involvement in violent acts is to develop a strong community. Having neighbors that watch out for each other's children and who support the parents can greatly alleviate some of the pressure put on parents who are oftentimes working and trying to raise more than one child. In addition, a strong community allows children to feel safe. This is the first step in establishing a child's self-esteem, in developing a child's personality, his sense of right and wrong and in creating an environment where a child can flourish.
Education is not the sole responsibility of parents, schools must play a role in teaching children how to handle their anger. The key to education of this sort, however, is that it must begin at an early age, preferably in first and second grade. Teaching children simple techniques, such as counting to ten, can help them control their anger and avoid battles.
Another measure is to reduce class sizes or add teachers to classrooms. In so doing, the school system would facilitate learning and improve the quality of education, a measure that can only deter children from violence and turn their eyes towards the future. Such a measure would reduce the pressure of teachers and diffuse the tension in classrooms.
Afterschool activities are another way of reducing violence, they keep children involved in constructive, fun activities that develop the child's interests and talents. Research shows that children involved in athletic activities are better adjusted and more emotionally stable than those who are not.
In summary, the outlook is bleak, but it is not incurable. Children and violence, particularly in schools, has to become a national priority. For so many children the only way to lift themselves out of a bad situation (poverty, an abusive household, gangs, etc.) is to get a good education, and a decent job. Too many children are not receiving the best possible education because they school is not a healthy environment where children feel safe.
This paper was prepared in 1997 for a colloquium facilitated by Stephen Wright, instructor for the Advocates for Children program, part of the College Park Scholars community at the University of Maryland, College Park.