One beautiful day in October on the Purdue University campus in Indiana, an 18-year-old freshman strolled into his dorm. Blaming his RA (resident assistant, or dorm counselor) for the trouble he had gotten into for cocaine possession, the boy pulled out a gun and shot the older student dead.
This situation shows signs of the same troubling violence that has infected some high schools across the nation. Not just inner-city schools, but all kinds of schools–suburban and rural as well as urban–have been affected. Every year, there are nearly 3 million incidents of theft or violent crime in or near schools.
Have weapons become as much an accessory in a backpack as a calculator? More than 41 percent of teenagers surveyed recently by Children’s Institute International said they don’t feel safe at school. More than 46 percent said violence was increasing at their school. Gangs, guns, media violence–along with poverty, drugs, and disintegrating families–all contribute to the threat of violence in schools.
It’s a Team Effort
Combating the complex problem of school violence must be a team effort. Students, the school, the community, parents, law enforcers, courts, and religious leaders all need to work together to make schools safe.
Many schools have effective safe-school plans. And a key to many successful schools’ plans is peer mediation or mediation by outside volunteers. Working with trained mediators, both sides in a dispute hear each other out and work toward a solution that both can accept.
Safe-school plans also may include these measures:
* metal detectors to prevent weapons from being carried into school
* zero-tolerance rules for drug use, bullying, and weapons possession
* graffiti crackdown to erase gang symbols
* security guards to head off trouble
* locker supervision to keep drugs and weapons out of the school
* transparent backpacks to keep weapons out of the school
Across the country, the wave of violence is meeting with a wall of resistance. Students who violate violence-free codes are being expelled more frequently. In 16 states, students patrol and report crimes through the Youth Crime Watch program.
What You Can Do
A school action plan is only part of the answer. Each individual in the school has to be part of the solution on a personal level. Even if you’re not directly involved in a confrontation, you’re still involved. Responsibility rests with the majority not to allow bullying to go on at school. On a personal level, you can show your strength by helping to prevent violence in these ways:
* Know you can be tough by backing down. Sometimes the smartest thing to do is to walk away from a confrontation. It can take more guts–and be cooler–than to give in to anger and fight. Police say most youth homicides result from someone not backing down from a fight.
* Understand ways of dealing with confrontation. There are times to avoid it, times to use reason or humor, and times to assert yourself. Have an appropriate range of reactions, not an on/off switch.
* Listen. Use active listening skills, even repeating aloud the other person’s viewpoint to make sure you understand it.
* Know what your body language says. Just a look can be interpreted as a staredown and may start a major fight.
* Be assertive when it’s safe and appropriate. Effective responses can be saying “Don’t do that!” or “Stop it!” and walking away. Anger and combativeness only escalate conflict.
* Get tough on yourself. Be firm about being responsible for your own behavior. Keep your anger in check. When there’re no refs to put you in the penalty box, do your own self-policing. Sit out, take deep breaths, and count to 10 when you feel yourself becoming confrontational. Keep a lid on your own tendencies to violence. You’ll thank yourself for it.
* Avoid bad situations. Do what it takes, whether it’s sticking with a supportive group, walking away, or taking a different route home.
* Use peer mediation. Look to the program at your school, or request one if your school doesn’t have it. Use a go-between to talk out and resolve a conflict so that both sides win.
* Go for extracurricular activities. Make sure your school has them for all interests, and get involved. School activities, along with work experiences, are safe alternatives to gangs and can boost your self-respect.
* If you have a problem with violence–either your own or someone else’s–get help. See a teacher or other adult you trust.
A small insult or negative look can blow up into a violent crisis. If somebody at your school gives you a bad look or hits you with a put-down, what do you do–make a joke, tell him to quit, or punch him? Depending on where you are and whom you’re with, your choice could mean the difference between a falling-out and a fatality.
Schools around the country are working to be safe havens for students (see sidebar below). Safe schools put the squeeze on guns, drugs, and gangs–and squeeze out violence. But your school has to be able to count on you to come through a conflict with a cool head.