In its issue of February 25, the Stabroek News carried an article on violence in schools entitled “Out of Control” which opened with two significant sentences, “Violence in schools poses serious challenges to the fabric of the country’s education system. The authorities are yet to fashion a workable response.” However, because violence in schools is neither pervasive nor deep seated there is still time for the government to tackle this issue in a systematic and concerted manner and thereby prevent it from becoming an all-engulfing monster.
This process must begin with the government dispelling the climate of fear that it has generated among teachers while simultaneously lifting the veil of secrecy that surrounds its own actions thereby creating the prerequisites to involve all stakeholders in the process of arriving at a comprehensive, implementable policy. In fact, collaborative development by administrators, teachers, parents, and even students, with a review procedure for legal compliance, will help to ensure that the policy be respected and enforced.
One component of such a policy should be a Violence Free Schools Act laying down zero tolerance for weapons and mandating significant consequences for students who infringe don’t confirm. The legislation must also allow for the trial of offenders as adults if the circumstances, as spelt out by the law, so demand. Finally the bill must make it possible to hold parents/adults legally responsible for infractions if it is determined that the weapons are brought from home or obtained through the negligence or collaboration of adults. In fact, parents should also be held legally responsible for other types of non-acceptable behavior such as truancy and delinquency.
Additionally the Ministry of Education must mandate that all schools institutionalize a code of conduct that demonstrates a commitment to violence prevention and helps staff and students feel safe. The code should clearly explain school rules and punishments for infractions. A cornerstone of this code must be the state mandated “zero tolerance for weapons” provision. In addition there must be zero tolerance provisions for other types of offenses, such as assaulting a teacher. Consequences must include the removal of violent students and, because some disruptive students might welcome expulsion, the school response to certain specified acts must entail legal prosecution.
Other consequences, which would not include corporal punishment, can include, but not be limited to detention – lunch and after school; suspension at another school rather than at home; contacting parents and perhaps getting the family to have a member sit in the classroom for a few days; taking away gym or PE; moving the student to a different class for a day or more; having parents taking away privileges such as phone, TV, games or movies and so on and conferences with students after which they can be placed on Daily Behavior Ratings (DBRs).
In addition to being prominently posted throughout school buildings, this code must be discussed with students to be sure they understand the purpose of the rules, the parameters of acceptable behavior, and the consequences of infractions. It must also be discussed with parents so that they understand their role and responsibilities in ensuring that violence is kept out of school environments. Finally, this code must also be subjected to periodic review to maintain appropriateness, effectiveness, and completeness over time. In this process the Ministry of Education must monitor and share best practices throughout the education system.
A successful anti-violence policy must also include be proactive components. Thus schools must carry out programs that run the gamut from general educational improvement efforts to interventions that target specific types of illegal or anti- social behavior. The most effective campaigns are usually directed by a clearly defined administrative entity, and involve parents in a variety of roles and, as appropriate, also draw on community leaders and resources.
School programs must start with early intervention: elementary education training in anger management, impulse control, appreciation of diversity, and mediation and conflict resolution skills that can help prevent youth from engaging in violence as they mature. Early discussions about the negative consequences of violence, and provision of positive ways of getting personal needs met, can protect children from future violent behavior. Also age-appropriate training in self-esteem development and stress management and reduction, especially for students living in poverty or in difficult family circumstances, can help transform negative feelings into positive coping skills.
Later intervention programs, such as aggression replacement and anti-bullying training can focus on modifying beliefs and related behavior. Other types of training, introduced to students at later developmental stages, should cover development of “refusal skills” to help cope with peer pressure and other types of pressure that can lead to substance use, sexual activity, teenage pregnancy and date violence.
Also necessary would be programs that take a positive approach to violence prevention by offering incentives for good behavior, such as a recognition and reward system for good school citizenship. For at-risk students who generally respond positively to personal attention, teachers can help them resist violent impulses by offering them extra help with their schoolwork, referrals, informal counseling, or even just a sympathetic ear.
In high-risk schools, training in violence prevention-for all staff can both make the school safer and help staff feel more secure. Programs can include development of the ability to identify students at risk of anti-social behavior for preventive intervention, identifying and diffusing potential violence, and dealing safely with violence should it erupt. Some staff training, such as conflict resolution, would cover the same issues that comprise training for students, and it can be effective in terms of cost, time and effort for staff to participate along with students, whenever possible. Additionally professional development for teachers should be a comprehensive, ongoing exercise as spelt out in Dr. Leyland Mason’s article “Education… Some Imperatives for Teacher Education and Training in Guyana” (SN: Guyana Review/Jan. 28, 2010).
An integral aspect of violence prevention is the assurance that there must be no contradiction between school policies and practice. In short comprehensive regulations for dealing with violence must also ensure that enforcement is not uneven or lax. This level of enforcement would ensure that teachers do not feel unsupported when they impose discipline, students feel protected, and the violence-prone will think twice knowing that they will be punished. Conversely, administrators must ensure that teachers do enforce policies in their classrooms, so that everyone would be held to the same standards and be on the same page. And the Ministry of Education must ensure that politics does not enter into the process so that all students are held to the same standards.
Another important component of violence prevention is the development of partnerships between schools and community so schools can capitalize on and reinforce the efforts of religious and recreational organizations; social service and public health agencies; the business community and law enforcement agencies. For example, PTA meetings can in corporate programs in parenting skills and family relationships, particularly those focusing on nonviolent living skills, conflict resolution and anger management. Also, in the most violence-prone areas, schools may form partnerships with the police to visit periodically or even to patrol the halls regularly.
Additionally, schools could use parents as monitors and teachers’ aides. Doing this is inexpensive and can be an effective deterrent, since students may be more reluctant to behave badly when watched by someone they regularly see in the neighborhood. Further, involving parents gives them a sense of ownership of anti-violence efforts and may help them reconsider their own attitudes about violence.
Students too can be involved in helping to spearhead anti-violence campaigns. For example, a monitor system can be instituted, where possible but does not currently exist, to ensure open eyes and ears among the student body at all times, as well as to give students ownership of the process.
Finally the academic curriculum must become child centered in order to help students become empowered, develop organizational skills and take responsibility for their work and actions. Among the strategies that could be employed are:
- Keeping of portfolios and/or work sample files
- Using peer tutors and the buddy system
- Engaging in group and partner work
- Using rubrics
- Setting up a print rich environment that displays students’ works, process charts and the like. Students can be involved in creating the charts and in designing the environment.
- Using students to re-teach concepts and demonstrate problem solving to their peers.
- Instituting Literature Circles, reading and writing journals, writing entries, reading evidences.
PS: This letter was published in March 2010 in the Guyana media. However it is is still quite relevant.