Are Schools More Dangerous Now?

Every now and then, a popular comparison surfaces between what students were disciplined for years ago (chewing gum, passing notes) versus what they are disciplined for now (weapons, drugs, fighting).   Everyone nods and bemoans the state of our families or the state of our schools, depending who they choose to blame.  Obviously something is wrong.  Kids are out of control.  Schools are out of control. 

That at least is the perception.

Last week I visited my parents' old high school in inner city Chicago.  It was my first experience entering a school with a metal detector and guard at the door.  The metal detector was at the front entrance though  there were of course several other doors.  The rest were locked from the outside but of course had to be openable from the inside.  I was amused with the look of security so easily gotten around by anyone earnest about sneaking weapons inside.  It was credit make-up summer school and as my friend and I walked through the school, students were polite and well behaved.  The students we talked with said their school was safe and that there were gang members in the school but no gang activity.

My experience is in rural high poverty high schools.  Most of our discipline incidents were for class disruptions and truancy not those scarier infractions.  Drug, weapon or fighting incidents were less than once a week.  Still sounds bad but consider this:  Most drug offenses were for cigarettes, with alcohol and marijuana much less frequent.  Most weapon offenses were for possession of non-lethal weapons.  Think pocket knife left in a backpack or a kid poking another with a pencil.  I can only recall one incident of a student brandishing a weapon (threatening another person) at school .  That student had used a chain to threaten other students though fortunately no one was injured.  Fights were maybe once a month, usually brief and quickly dispersed and never involving more than two combatants.  Some fights were just a shove but recorded and disciplined nonetheless.  Bullying was quickly dealt with and administrators were always visible during passing and lunch times.

Our schools were safe but that didn't keep parents and community from worrying.  After Columbine and Thurston, anxiety about school safety exploded.  We in schools over-reacted.  That was when "zero tolerance" plans for dealing with threats emerged.  A child on the playground shouting "I'm going to kill you" in a dodge ball game would be expelled.  Context didn't matter; we administered our harshest punishment -- denying students access to regular schooling -- for utterances even in jest about violence.  Some over-reaction continues.  Random bomb threats penciled on bathroom stalls trigger notes home to parents, police presence, media coverage, time-consuming backpack searches in the mornings, lockdowns and bans on electronics; attention that encourages rather than discourages the behavior. This even though there is no evidence that a bomb threat increases the chance of a bomb even by a tiny fraction of a percent.

In 32 years working in schools, I cannot recall a time when I felt danger from students.  I jumped  between students fighting, restrained kids on occasion and sometimes drew student anger over unpopular policies.  The perception that school staff are being bullied and attacked wasn't true.  Still, bring several hundred teens together in one place and antics will happen.  So what should schools do to control behavior? 

Treat Students with Respect
Teens will do foolish things.  Administrators who categorize kids as "good" and "bad" reinforce their stereotypes.  Too often, the labels have as much to do with socioeconomic status as with behaviors.  Students are not our foes.  Neither are they our friends.  We need to show interest and regard for all students, not just athletes and scholars.  Reach out to your "druggie" groups, your withdrawn students and your frequently disciplined kids.  Show them you like them when they're behaving and they will more likely cooperate in discipline situations.  

Lately, I've heard more adults bemoaning the loss of corporal punishment in schools.  They believe that if we could spank students, they'd behave better.  I doubt that.  Humans do not respond well to being robbed of their dignity.  Humiliation has consequences.  Humans do respond well though to feeling socially effective.  Treat students with respect and keep their dignity in tact, never embarrassing them in front of peers, and they will rise to the occasion.
Even more common are surveillance cameras being installed in school hallways.  I wrote previously about why these are counterproductive. (See The Case Against Cameras in Schools)
Let Students Know you Value Honesty
Begin each disciplinary interview with a comment about honesty -- before the student has a chance to obfuscate.  Let students know you can forgive a behavior but that lying about it erodes trust in the future.  I had a little speech about integrity being the one thing that is truly yours, that no one can take from you.  I also reminded students that there might come a time when they would need me to believe them and not being truthful now could be a greater problem down the road.  

Interview and Discipline Individuals, not Groups
Interview students separately.  Listen to the student's story.  Where there are differences in stories, point those out and give them the chance to correct and clarify.  If necessary, interview witnesses as well as protagonists.  The truth will emerge. 
In the age of cell phones, hold students' phones until the investigation is over.  Otherwise, text messages from those already interviewed will compromise testimony of those still to be heard from.

Administer Discipline Fairly
One vice principal I know begins the interview with the prescribed punishment for the crime, letting the student know that violation x leads to disciplinary action y.   Students and parents may feel unfairness even when you're impeccably fair.  Focus less on the disciplinary action and more on building the relationship with the student and parent.

Forgive and Move On
On NPR many years ago, I heard a lawyer for accused murderers and armed robbers speak.  The reporter asked how he could relate to his clients, the worst of the worst.  He responded that each of them was just a human being and that none of us was as bad as the worst thing we'd ever done.  That made an impression.  I always told students that once they'd paid the consequences, we'd start fresh.  I let them know that all of us -- including me -- had a "worst thing we'd ever done".  If this action was the student's "worst thing", it didn't define who he was.  I told them I wouldn't share the worst thing I'd done but that it stayed with me, a certain amount of shame but mostly the reminder that that was not who I chose to be. 

If schools are more dangerous (not in my experience, but perhaps somewhere), what could be some reasons?
  • Today's schools educate all students, not just an elite.  When my parents were in school (the 1940s), only 25% of Americans finished high school.  When I graduated, only 53% did.  The rest were kicked out or dropped out.  High school was not for all comers.  Today 89% of Americans finish high school.  If there are differences, they lie with the rest of the population who are now part of the school system.
  • The disparities between rich and poor today make pervasive poverty harder to bear, particularly when the media present constant reminders of how families should live and all that everyone should have.  Making ends meet, even with two wage earners, is harder than ever.
  • The drug culture is now an adult phenomenon, not just a youth one.  Too many of our parents are chemically affected, whether legally or illegally.  Growing up with alcoholic or meth-addicted parents is all too pervasive.  In our community, meth use is at epidemic proportions.  Interestingly though, I met very few teens who used meth, even when their parents did.  Even druggie kids reject meth, a substance they know all too well is disgusting.
  • Overbearing administrators or teachers.  Those who believe that an iron fist and culture of oppressiveness are the way to keep peace in the schools generate rebellion or merely postpone the acting out. 
The idyllic image of the old school where everyone was safe was never true.  My schools in the 1960s had bullies, fights, alcohol and talking back.  If I had comparative data, I would bet that today's schools in spite of the factors above are actually more peaceful, though perhaps more lively.  But that data doesn't exist since documenting disciplinary incidences is a recent phenomenon, as are the scarier categories we use ("weapons" or "assault" for poking with a pencil and "drugs" for sneaking a smoke behind the school).