Communities and schools should take a preventive approach to school violence rather than focus solely on punishing students who have behavior problems, experts said yesterday at a summit on school violence.
Students are looking for structure, high academic expectations, and teachers who understand and can communicate with them, said Ivan J. Juzang, a consultant who gave the keynote address at the daylong meeting at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Providing those basics will make schools safer, he said.
The summit was organized by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick after several high-profile incidents of violence in schools this year, including the beating of a Baltimore teacher that became nationwide news after it was recorded on a student's cell phone and posted on the Internet.
The summit was called to find solutions to the problems of school violence, but the conversation among participants and speakers focused more broadly on the need to intervene in the lives of troubled children as early as elementary school. The participants included legislators, teachers, school board members, community leaders, parents and students from across the state.
They emphasized the role of those outside of schools - churches, mentors, parents and police - in helping to provide support that will steer students, particularly those from inner-city and poor neighborhoods, to the right path.
Cummings said he will convene an action group that would take the ideas generated in small groups yesterday afternoon and come up with suggestions for school districts across the state.
In addition, Grasmick and Cummings are planning a fall conference for students to discuss the issue of school violence.
Two possible actions
Grasmick said she envisions two actions that the state can take in the next year to try to increase safety.
The State Department of Education, she said, can develop standard definitions for misbehavior types of offenses While there are widely accepted standards in all schools for the most serious infractions, there are differing definitions for many other offenses such as insubordination. Because there is such wide variation, students are being punished in different ways, depending on where they attend school.
"There should be a standard and a sense of fairness," she said. Also, she said, colleges and universities need to train teachers better in techniques for defusing confrontations with belligerent students.
Value of mentors
Juzang, who has focused his research and work on low-income urban students, said television, music and video games influence those youths in addition to the violence they witness in their neighborhoods.
In Baltimore, there is a higher probability that youths between 15 and 24 years old will die violently than there was for soldiers serving in combat in Vietnam, he said.
Juzang said mentoring is important. He cited a survey of 2,000 students with annual family incomes of under $25,000 conducted around the nation. It found that students who liked to read, were not sexually active and attended church could identify three or four adults, other than their parents, who were part of their lives.
An audience member, Epiphany Butler, is a recent graduate of a new, small Baltimore high school, most of whose students will go on to college. She said that her mother was incarcerated and that she had come from difficult circumstances, but that staffers at her school, Doris M. Johnson High at Lake Clifton, had become her family. "You say the teachers shouldn't have to raise us, but that is basically what they have done," she said.
Juzang said that school violence could be reduced if teachers learned to communicate better with the hip-hop generation. "You can't influence young people unless you can communicate with them," he said.
Many of these African-American students, he said, come from a culture that values oral communication. In that tradition, it is common to challenge a speaker's views and to enter into intense dialogue. Teachers need to understand that tradition and use it to their advantage in turning around the misbehaving students. Particularly, he said, teachers must identify the leaders in a school or classroom. "He may not be the kid you like," he said. But if the teacher can convince the student that there are better choices than violence, he could be an effective advocate in keeping the school safe.
"Don't blame the media. Don't blame the games. Don't blame the parents, because then you give up power," Juzang said to educators.
Not all members of the audience of several hundred accepted Juzang's analysis. Frank Clark, who has worked with youth in Howard County, told Juzang he was wrong about the older generation. "We understand young people, but we don't accept everything they do," he said.
Clark said he has volunteered in schools for years. "You have to take back your schools. ... Make the parents responsible for their [children's] bad behavior," Clark said.
Solutions, said Cummings, could start with empowering teachers by giving them a better understanding of the students in their classes and how to deal with them. Rules must exist, and they have to be upheld, he said.