Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Coping With Campus Violence

April 24, 2009

There was a fight at my school last week, a big, ugly fight in the street just after students were dismissed for the day. Some older relatives of the girl who instigated the fight were involved. Dozens, perhaps even hundreds of students, gathered around to watch.

A teacher tried to break it up and was accidentally punched. It ended with one of the girls being handcuffed and taken away by police. She will be expelled from this school and placed in another Oakland, California, public school. The other girls who fought were suspended for five days.

An Iron Fist Is Not the Answer

Teachers are now demanding that this incident be the impetus for enforcing a stricter discipline policy. Several have suggested that students who watch fights be suspended. Generally, the staff agrees that we should suspend students more often and expel the troublemakers more quickly and that we need more security guards patrolling our campus. This is a middle school of fewer than 400 students. There are two full-time security guards on campus. Seventy-five percent of our students are African American.

At my school, kids are most often suspended for fighting or repeatedly getting into trouble. But last year, one of my eighth-grade girls called the vice principal something unprintable; she was suspended and threatened with expulsion. There is, in general, a feeling of "us versus them," particularly in the hallways, where teachers see student behavior as being out of control. The biggest complaints from some staff are that the kids push and run, use profanity, and don't apologize when they bump into an adult.

I understand that some teachers fear for their physical safety. I understand that the teacher who was hit during the fight is very shaken and discouraged. However, the answer to the hostile, negative atmosphere at my school is not a stricter discipline policy and is definitely not more suspensions.

The Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline

There's a ton of research on the negative affect of suspension, particularly on urban male students. The "America's Cradle to Prison Pipeline Report," prepared by the Children's Defense Fund, argues that suspension has a role in the cradle-to-prison-pipeline phenomenon. Below are a few points made in that report that are resonating with me now:

  • Zero-tolerance discipline policies don't improve school achievement or teach a lesson to the offender; they contribute to the "pipeline to prison" by pushing students out of school.
  • School systems are criminalizing school misbehavior, with police officers stationed at schools, arresting students for behavior that used to be handled in the principal's office.
  • America's deeply ingrained philosophy that just getting tough is the way to stop misbehavior rarely works, especially with children. The political pendulum swings from more to less punishment and back again, but the paradigm itself is worn out, and a new one has not taken its place.
  • Despite the image of superpredators and dangerous hallways, most students suspended from school and most juveniles in detention did not commit violent offenses or put the safety of others at risk.

What Is to Be Done?

I have never seen suspension or expulsion work to effectively change a child's behavior. The longer I work in schools, the more suspicious I become of reward-based or fear-based behavior-management systems. I have been thinking a lot about motivation -- intrinsic versus extrinsic. I'm not interested in making kids walk properly; I'm interested in helping them become respectful, conscientious people.

Force Never Heals Pain

My yoga teacher asked her students to direct our breath to areas of our bodies that hurt. "Direct your attention there," she said, "and then just listen to what your body is saying. Don't talk at it; breathe into it. Be gentle. Our bodies don't respond when we try to force them to do things. Force never heals pain. Attention does. Awareness does. Listening does. But not force."

I know that this observation is true. I know that it's true for my body, for my students, for our schools. But how do we listen to them? How do we support them to change their behavior in the hallways for intrinsically motivated reasons?

When I think about the girls who fought, I think that they must have been feeling some great pain, and fear -- consciously or subconsciously. I want to work in a system that has space for kids to be listened to. Do you know of any such places?

How do you think we can hear our kids? How can we bring better attention to their pain and not just push them along toward an end that may include prison? Please share your thoughts.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 9-12 High School

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