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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

When Will We Ever Learn?: Creating Nonviolent Schools Takes Time

Social and emotional learning must be part of the daily curriculum in order to avoid future tragedies like Columbine.
By Linda Lantieri
Teaching young people to resolve conflict nonviolently is as important as teaching reading, the author argues. Credit: GLEF

March 6, 2001.

Here we go again. Yesterday, two young people were sacrificed to a senseless shooting in what is still one of the safest places to be -- our schools. And another young person is about to be sacrificed to a place that we now spend more money on than his education -- our jails. He will probably be tried as an adult and counted as a tell-tale statistic. Yet two or three more children have fallen through what appears to be a huge tear in the safety net that is supposed to catch them before they get into so much trouble.

As I traveled across the country after the Columbine tragedy speaking to folks about what it will take to make our schools nonviolent, caring communities, I was very troubled by the response.

High profile speakers were telling audiences of educational leaders that the lesson of Columbine was to turn their places of learning into armed fortresses. They were encouraged to give "crash courses" to their staff on how to detect early warning signs so that they would somehow be able to spot troubled young persons among thousands who might be roaming their school hallways. Educational leaders took notes with earnest interest from such speakers as they told them they would need to know where the nearest bomb sniffing dog kennel was in case of an emergency.

No, we had not learned the lesson of Columbine. School districts all over this country then gambled millions of dollars on technological quick-fixes, even as ample research tells us that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of metal detectors.

The message I was delivering to educational leaders wasn't a quick-fix solution you could buy in a catalogue. I was offering what I had learned by working in 400 schools implementing the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program. Teaching young people to manage their emotions, resolve conflict nonviolently, and respect differences is just as important as teaching reading and math.

To reclaim our schools as nonviolent, caring communities of learning, we can't resort to cheap tricks (or even expensive ones) or simplistic thinking. What is needed is a systemic and comprehensive K-12 effort to equip young people with the skills and competencies necessary to be emotionally skillful, socially responsible, and academically competent. It's not one or the other.

The dilemmas of our times are ones that our young people have to be prepared to meet at all levels. And it's not about waiting for another Columbine or Santana. It's time we realize that schools can play their part in creating learning environments that foster compassion, inclusion, and respect. We need to make a long-term commitment to provide young people with the support they need.

These high profile incidents in our schools share some characteristics. This most recent incident was once again in a community where young people seemed to possess too many things that had too little meaning. Again, we're learning about a young person who was teased, ridiculed, and bullied and who now stands accused as a perpetrator. School was not an emotionally safe place for this young man. The daily taunts he received would never be picked up by the metal detector his school might resort to installing.

Lessons are repeated until we learn them. I am crying out, issuing this plea: let's not allow this lesson to repeat itself. We can answer the question: "When will we ever learn?" with the answer: "We have learned." We are the ones who will put the policies and practices in place in our schools that enable all young people to have their emotional and social selves welcomed, their spirits uplifted, and their inner lives nourished as a normal, natural part of their education.

This vision of education goes beyond teaching about right or wrong. It is a vision being acted upon in some schools already. But these schools are the exception, not the norm. It is a vision of raising compassionate, insightful, and brave young people who will be able to look at the challenges they will inherit -- racism, poverty, violence, sustainability -- and respond with their whole selves. It is a vision of schools with heart and soul.

Linda Lantieri is founding director and director of project renewal of the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program.
This commentary is reproduced with the author's permission.

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