Preventing Violence in Schools
Discipline as an Exercise of Power
With concerns about order, efficiency and control dominating the thinking which guided the early development of schools in the U.S., we must ask ourselves how this legacy has influenced the current character of public schools? As the demographic composition of cities began to change in the 1950's and '60s with the arrival of new immigrants (e.g. West Indians, Puerto Ricans and other Latinos) and the migration of Blacks from the south , and as social and economic conditions within urban areas began to deteriorate , the character and condition of schools also began to change. Disorder was not the immediate result however, for while the student population changed, in many cases the teachers remained the same, with most still relying on methods of control that had proven successful in the past. Writing about the conditions of schools in what he described as "slum areas", James Conant spoke of the need to impose a harsher standard of discipline to insure that discipline and order prevailed.
Many educators would doubtless be shocked by the practice of on-the-spot demotion of one full academic year, with no questions asked, for all participants in fights. In one junior high school I know of, a very able principal found so intolerable a situation that he established that very rule. As a consequence, there are fewer fights in his school among boys, many of whom at one time or another have been in trouble with the police. The school must attempt to bring some kind of order to their chaotic lives...this formal atmosphere appears to work. School spirit has developed...children must stay in school till they are sixteen or till graduation to prevent unemployed, out-of-school youth from roaming the streets."(Conant 1961 :22)
By the mid 1960s however, the situation had changed. Insubordination and aggression on the part of students toward teachers, was becoming increasingly common, and violence within schools, especially among students, was widely seen as the norm. Some educators made the connection between the difficulty schools were having in maintaining control over students to the political turmoil which accompanied the civil rights movement and the riots which took place in many cities across the country. Describing the political dimension of this problem and advising teachers how to respond to it, Allan Ornstein wrote that:
With control and compliance increasingly difficult to obtain, many urban schools lowered their expectations with respect to student behavior. The preoccupation with enforcing rules was gradually replaced with a desire to maintain average daily attendance levels, since this was the key funding formula for schools. As teachers came to realize that they were no longer able to elicit obedience through the "terror of degradation" (Tyack:54), concerns about safety led more of them to understand that they must think twice about how to approach a student, lest their advance be taken as a confrontation for which they are generally unprepared.
Still, schools have not given up entirely on the goal of exercising control over students. Though the task of controlling students may be far more difficult now than it ever was, schools are still expected to maintain some form of order. Beyond the threat to the personal safety of students and teachers, the occurrence of violence within schools represents a challenge to the authority and power of school officials. In carrying out their custodial duties as caretakers of youth, school officials serve as symbolic representatives of state authority. With the power vested in their position they are expected to control the behavior of those in their charge. When violence occurs with impunity, a loss of authority is exposed. For this reason, even amidst the current discourse about violence, it is seldom discussed in isolation from other control issues. More often, violence is equated with insubordination, student misconduct and with the problem of maintaining order in school generally. The way in which the issues become melded together is indicative of how schools perceive their role in relation to the social control function that schools have historically performed in the United States.
The Disciplining Event
For this reason, the exercise of discipline takes on great importance because it serves as the primary means through which symbols of power and authority are restored. In analyzing the symbolic issues associated with discipline and violence in schools, it is helpful to consider the work of Michel Foucault. Writing about the role of punishment meted out upon criminal offenders in France during the 19th century, Foucault describes what he calls the "juridico-political" function of the act.
While the kinds of public executions and tortures carried out in France during the nineteenth century may seem far removed from the forms of discipline carried out in schools today, Foucaults' focus on the relationship between the disciplining act and the "reactivation" of power is relevant to understanding the symbolic role of discipline. The disciplining event, whether it occurs in public or private, serves as one of the primary means through which school officials "send a message" to perpetrators of violence, and to the community generally, that the authority vested in them by the state is still secure. Particularly within the current political climate created by the fight against violence, the disciplining event provides an opportunity for school authorities to use those accused of committing acts of violence as an example to others.
From a symbolic standpoint, the student expulsion hearing is perhaps the most important spectacle at which the meting out of punishment upon those accused of violence can be used for larger political purposes. As a quasijudicial ceremony, the formality of an expulsion hearing often contains all of the drama and suspense associated with a court room trial. Though the event itself is closed to the public, news of the decision rendered by the school board or hearing officers often travels quickly, particularly when the student is charged with committing an act of violence.
I had the opportunity to attend an expulsion hearing at an urban school district which I was working with as a consultant. I have described what transpired below because I think it helps to illuminate important power/knowledge dynamics:
The accused in this case was charged with bringing a loaded gun to school. The education code in this particular state called for an automatic expulsion hearing whenever students are apprehended for bringing weapons to school. When asked to explain why he had brought the weapon to school, the student informed the board members that his father and mother had recently separated, and that his father, who was very distraught over the separation, mentioned that he was thinking of killing himself. He instructed his son to remove his 9mm handgun from the house so that he wouldn't harm himself or anyone else.
The boy informed the board that during the summer, his grandmother had attempted to commit suicide by slashing her wrists, and that he and his father had to apply pressure to her bloodied arms in order to prevent her from bleeding to death while they waited for an ambulance to arrive. With vivid memories of that traumatic event in his head, and fearing that his father might follow through on his threat to take his own life, the boy placed the gun in his backpack and took it with him to school. He explained that he later showed it to a friend at school because he wanted to talk to someone about what was going on, but that he had not shown the weapon to anyone else, nor had he brought the gun back to school after that day.
In questioning the student about his actions one board member noted that the student possessed an exemplary academic record, and that all of his teachers spoke highly of him, referring to him as "respectful, honest, hard working, etc.". He was then asked whether in retrospect he would have handled the situation differently. The student explained that he still wasn't sure what he should have done, but thought that maybe he could have hidden the gun in the bushes near his house instead of bringing it with him to school. Upon hearing this one of the board members proceeded to lecture the student and his father who had accompanied him to the hearing about the danger of guns. One commented that the student didn't seem to have learned a lesson from this very serious error in judgement. Exasperated by their doubts the student claimed he had learned a lesson and promised to never bring a weapon to school again. A board member then asked what the school principal recommended for punishment, and was told that the principal wanted to see the student expelled so that "we send a clear message that guns on campus will not be tolerated." After deliberating for several minutes, the board responded with a unanimous vote for expulsion.
As an observer of this event, I was struck by several aspects of what took place. First, all five of the Board members judging this student, as well as the principal who presented the evidence against him, were White and middle class, while the student was Black and from a low income family. From the questions they asked and the lectures that they directed at him and his father, it seemed evident that they were unable to identify with the student and the situation that he was in. While I felt uncomfortable hearing the student and his father divulge the problems that they were having in their personal lives, there was no apparent consternation among board members over the imbalance of the situation, and no attempts were made to communicate that they could empathize with the anguish and pressure that either the student or his father must have been experiencing. After hearing one board member ask the student if he would have handled the situation differently in retrospect, I wanted to ask how she would have handled it, or if she or any of the others had ever experienced anything similar. The gulf in experience between the board members and the student seemed to be compounded by the obvious differences based on race, class and age. However, I perceived no indication that the board regarded this as a problem, nor did I sense any effort on their part to understand his actions from his point of view.
Second, despite evidence that this incident represented an aberration from this student's "normal" behavior in school, and despite the fact that no one at the school was actually threatened by the presence of the gun, board members and the principal seemed more concerned with using the case to communicate a message about guns in school, rather than trying to figure out an appropriate way of responding to the needs of this particular student. In this respect, the hearing served as the occasion through which the power of the district could be communicated. By ignoring the circumstances surrounding the offense, and focusing exclusively on the issue of the gun, the board could demonstrate its toughness and intolerance for those who threatened the security of others. While there was no evidence that the punishment of this individual student would have any influence upon the behavior of others, his expulsion would reinforce the institutional authority of the district leadership by serving as an example of their prerogative and power to punish. In a setting where most perpetrators of violence are not apprehended, and where very little is done to actually insure the safety of students and teachers, the act of punishment becomes an important exercise for showing who has control.
Finally, the disciplining moment also reveals the way in which the adult professionals, and to a lesser extent, the student and his father, were constrained by the "discipline" imbedded in the roles each party occupies within the institution. To the extent that the board members and the principal have power or authority, it is derived from their relation to an institutional structure; a structure whose history is rooted in nineteenth century preoccupations with social control. In their roles as prosecutor and judge, their sense of how to discipline this youngster is profoundly influenced by a body of knowledge or "discipline" that is rooted in the power relations that exist between the state and the school as a social institution. This power/knowledge limits the ability of the board and administrators to identify with the student on a human level, for to do so would open up the possibility that their might be other ways to understand his actions. To recognize that there might be another way of viewing this behavior that goes beyond a focus on crime, violence and misconduct, might lead to a different type of intervention. However, school board members and administrators typically see their job as protecting the institution and the individuals, students and teachers, under their charge. The state provides explicit guidelines on how this is to be done, but there are implicit guidelines as well pertaining to notions of how schools are supposed to operate and function, and how students are supposed to behave. To explore alternative ways of responding to violent, or potentially violent behavior, would necessarily require a fundamental change in how the institution and the provision of educational services were conceptualized by those in authority, a prospect which at the time of the disciplining moment often seems unimaginable.
Though a less sympathetic case could have been selected for analysis I chose this one because I feel it demonstrates how the act of violation is in many ways irrelevant to the form of discipline that is employed. Beyond their real life effects, violence and discipline take on a symbolic life of their own, symbols which play heavily on interactions within schools and which ultimately have influence upon how schools and violence is perceived by others. In the pages ahead, I will pursue further how a preoccupation with control limits the ability of schools to respond creatively to the crisis created by the increase in violence.
Race, Class and the Politics of Discipline
In many school districts across the country, considerable controversy has been generated over the disproportionate number of African American, and in some cases, Latino, students who are subjected to various forms of school discipline. In the state of California, legislation has been proposed to limit the ability of school districts to use suspensions and expulsions as a form of punishment, to respond to the imbalance in the number of Black and Latino students who are subjected to these sorts of penalties. Although the legislation has little chance of being approved by the state legislature, the fact that it was proposed is an indication of the depth of feeling in many Black communities that Black children are being treated unfairly. In Cincinnati, the disproportionate number of Black students who are suspended and expelled in public schools prompted a judge to call for teachers and administrators to be held accountable for "student behavior management", as part of a court order monitoring desegregation in the district's schools.
Although there is evidence that schools which serve White middle class students in the suburbs also have problems with violence, to a large extent, violence is perceived as a racial issue. Just as the threat of violent crime in society is characterized largely as a problem created by Black perpetrators, violence in schools is also equated with Black, and in some cases, Latino, students. While the correlations found between race and who gets arrested, suspended or expelled in schools are so consistent that it is impossible to deny that a linkage exist, in public discussions the issue tends to be avoided due to the controversy and tensions surrounding racial issues in American society. To avoid the charge of racism, many school officials argue that the connection between race and punishment disguises what is really more an issue of class than an issue of race, since most of those receiving discipline come from lower class families. While this may be true, the correlation between race and class is also very high in many school districts, and so the three variables: race, class and violence, tend to be associated together, at least in the minds of many.
The unwillingness to confront the implications of these kinds of correlations is replicated in the general refusal among most policy makers and school officials to place the problem of violence within the broader context of race and education. Not only is school punishment consistently correlated with race, it is also highly correlated with academic grouping and high school graduation rates. Those most likely to receive punishment in school are also more likely to have been placed in classes for EMR (Educationally Mentally Retarded) or TMR (Trainable Mentally Retarded) students. The consistency of these trends is more than mere coincidence. Such patterns point to what some have described as a "second-generation discrimination effect".
In every case where policy reflects positively on a student, black students are underrepresented. In every case where policy reflects negatively on a student, black students are overrepresented...That a pattern similar to the one revealed here could occur without some discrimination is virtually impossible to believe.
The Role of Teachers
While police officers, security guards and administrators generally assume primary responsibility for managing and enforcing school discipline, in most cases, teachers make the first referral in the discipline process, and therefore have tremendous influence in determining who receives discipline and why. In my work with urban schools, the most frequent concern I hear from teachers is that they have trouble disciplining and controlling their students. This has been especially true in schools at which the majority of students are Black and the majority of teachers are White. Having taught before in urban public schools, I am quite familiar with what teachers are up against, and recognize that some semblance of order and safety is essential if teaching and learning is to take place. However, whenever I conduct workshops in schools I generally try to shift the focus of talk about discipline to discussion about what teachers know about their students. I do this because I have generally found that teachers who lack familiarity with their students are more likely to misunderstand and fear them.
Two years ago, I had the opportunity to conduct a workshop on student discipline for a multiracial group of teachers at an urban middle school located in an economically depressed community. Before addressing what I knew to be their primary concern - a recipe for controlling student behavior in the classroom - I wanted to impress upon the teachers the importance of knowing the students with whom they worked. These teachers, like many teachers in urban school districts, did not live in the community where they worked, and knew very little about the neighborhood in which the school was located. Most of the teachers knew very little about the lives of the children they taught, and most assumed that the majority of children came from deprived, dysfunctional and impoverished families.
In an effort to increase the knowledge of the group about the community in which they worked, a community with which I was very familiar, I presented them with a hypothetical situation: Suppose you were invited to teach in a foreign country, what kind of information would you want to know before leaving? The teachers responded by generating a long list of what they felt was relevant information that would assist them in teaching in a land that they did not know. The list included information about politics, culture, the economy, history and geography. After discussing why they felt this information was important, I then asked how much of this information they knew in relation to the community in which they worked.
Two of the teachers said that they didn't need to know this sort of information in order to teach effectively because the school was located within the United States, and therefore was part of familiar territory. Most of the others however, recognized the inconsistency inherent in this perspective, particularly after being primed by the previous discussion, and acknowledged that a lack of knowledge might pose a problem for them in their work with students.
To address their ignorance, I suggested that we take a tour of the community and visit some of the housing projects and neighborhoods where their students lived, the stores where their parents shopped and bought food, the health clinics, libraries, parks, and some of the noteworthy historic landmarks in the community. I pointed out that a brief tour of the community would not be sufficient in providing them with useful information, but it could be a start at becoming more acquainted.
They agreed to go, and the following day we piled into my van and commenced with a four hour tour. Interestingly, after the tour nearly all of the teachers told me that they resented me for taking them on this excursion because they said it made them feel like tourists. "Didn't you see the people staring at us" one teacher commented, "They were probably wondering why we were there." Only one teacher disagreed with the group's reaction and expressed appreciation for being exposed to the community in this way. As it turned out, this teacher once lived in this community when she was a child, and the trip had served as a reminder to her that most of the residents in the area were working class homeowners. The winos and crack addicts who were visible on certain street corners, and who many other teachers believed were typical of a majority of the residents, actually constituted a small minority. However, the other teachers took up the position espoused by two of their colleagues earlier, insisting that they did not need to know the community in order to teach effectively. One asserted that "A good teacher can work with any child. I don't have to become an anthropologist to teach."
For me, this experience illustrated in a profound way how the gulf in experience between teacher and student, which is typical in many urban schools, contributes to the problem of violence in schools. The pretense operating in many schools is that teachers should treat all students the same, even though numerous studies on teacher expectations have shown that race, class and gender have considerable influence over the assumptions, conscious and unconscious, that teachers hold toward students.(Brookover and Erickson 1975; St. John 1975; Good and Cooper 1983; Dusek and Joseph 1983; Weinstein and Soule 1991) Although multicultural education and student diversity have become popular as a topic of discussion among teachers, understanding how the politics of difference influences teacher-student interaction, generally remains largely unexplored except at the most superficial level of analysis.
When the separation between teachers and students is based upon a lack of knowledge derived from contact and familiarity, teachers and administrators will often fill the knowledge void with stereotypes based upon what they have read or seen in the media, or what they have picked up indirectly from stories told to them by children. Many teachers, like others who live outside of poor, urban communities, tend to hold negative views toward these areas, views which are rooted in a fear of violence and the less-than-civilized images of the people who reside in the innercity. This fear invariably influences interaction between teachers/administrators and students. In the eyes of a "foreigner" who lacks a more informed frame of reference, the students often seem to embody the traits and exhibit the behavior of the hoodlums and thugs they have heard about or seen from afar. Whether they admit it or not, many of the teachers I have worked with in urban schools fear the children that they teach, and more often than not, the students are aware of it and attempt to use the teacher's fear to their advantage.
This is not to say that violence in schools is an imagined problem. I do believe however, that it is a problem that is exacerbated by fear. A teacher who fears the student that s/he teaches is more likely to resort to some form of discipline when challenged, or to ignore the challenge in the hope that s/he will be left alone. Rather than handling a classroom disruption on their own, they are more likely to request assistance from those responsible for handling discipline. Likewise, students who know that their teachers fear them are less likely to show respect, and more likely to be insolent and insubordinate. When fear is at the center of student-teacher interactions, teaching becomes almost impossible, and concerns about safety and control take precedent over concerns about teaching.
Humanizing the Environment: Alternative Approaches to Violence Prevention in Schools
In critiquing the approach to discipline that is most widely practiced in the country today, I in no way want to belittle the fact that many teachers and students have become victims of violence and deserve the right to work and attend school in safety. In many schools, violence is real, and the fear that it produces is understandable. Still, I am struck by the fact that even when I visit schools that have a notorious reputation for the prevalence of violence, I can find at least one classroom where teachers are working effectively with students, and where fear is not an obstacle to dialogue and even friendship. While other teachers within the school may be preoccupied with managing the behavior of their students, an endeavor at which they are seldom successful, I have seen the same students enter other classrooms willing to learn and comply with the instructions of their teachers.
Many of these "exceptional" teachers have to "cross borders" and overcome differences based on race, class or sheer experience in order to establish rapport with their students. Consistently, when I have asked students in interviews what is it that makes a particular teacher "special" and worthy of respect, the students cite three characteristics that these teachers share: firmness, compassion and an interesting, engaging and challenging style of teaching. Of course, even a teacher who is perceived as exceptional by students can be a victim of violence, particularly because of its increasingly random occurrence. However, I have witnessed such teachers confront students in situations that others would not dare to engage, boldly breaking up fights or dice games, or confronting a rude and disrespectful student, without showing the slightest bit of apprehension or fear.
The fact that teachers who possess what Durkheim described as "moral authority" tend to be so few in number compels me to ask why. Are fewer exceptional individuals going into teaching, or is there something about the structure and culture of the institution that propagates and reproduces the destructive interpersonal dynamics evident in so many schools? Once again my experience in schools leads me to believe that it is the latter. The vast majority of teachers that I meet seem genuinely concerned about their students, and sincerely desire to be effective at what they do. Even those who have become cynical and bitter as a result of enduring years of ungratifying work in underfunded schools, generally strike me as people who would prefer more humane interactions with their students.
What stands in the way of better relations between teachers and students, and how has it happened that fear and distrust characterize those relations rather than compassion and respect?
My answer to these questions focuses on the legacy of social control which continues to dominate the educational agenda, and which profoundly influences the structure and culture of schools. The pervasive dysfunction that characterizes social relations in urban public schools is not accidental nor is it unavoidable due to severity of social and economic conditions in the innercity. There are a few important exceptions to this norm, schools where teachers and students support each other in pursuit of higher personal and collective goals. However, such schools are certainly not typical or common. Rather, the average urban high school tends to be large, impersonal and foreboding, a place where bells and security guards attempt to govern the movements of students, and where students, more often than not, have lost sight of the fact that education and personal growth are ostensibly the reasons why they have been required to go on a daily basis to this anonymous institution.
I have visited urban schools that have found ways to effectively address the problem of violence which do not rely upon coercion or excessive forms of control. At one such school, rather than hiring a large man to work as security guard, a grandmother from the surrounding community was hired to monitor students. Instead of using physical intimidation to carry out her duties, this woman greeted children with hugs, and when some form of punishment was needed, she admonished them to behave themselves because she expected better behavior from them. I have also visited a continuation high school , where the principal was able to close the campus at lunch time without installing a fence or some other security apparatus, simply by communicating with students about other alternatives for purchasing food to eat so that they no longer felt it necessary to leave for meals. Now the students operate a campus store which both teachers and students patronize.
Efforts such as these are effective at addressing the potential for violence because they are based on the assumption that students will respond favorably to humane treatment. I believe that there are a variety of ways in which to humanize school environments and thereby reduce the potential for violence. By improving the aesthetic character of schools by including art in the design of schools, or by making space available within schools for students to create gardens or greenhouses, schools can become more pleasant and attractive. Similarly, by overcoming the divide that separates urban schools from the communities in which schools are located, the shortage of figures who possess "moral authority" in the eyes of children can be addressed by encouraging adults who live within the community to volunteer, or if possible, to be paid to tutor, teach, mentor, coach, perform or just plain help out with a variety of school activities. There are undoubtedly a variety of ways in which this can be done, and while such efforts may not eliminate the threat of random violence, they can help to make schools safer, less impersonal and better able to provide students in need with a sense of stability in their lives.
The goal of producing docile bodies in schools has persisted for too long. While past generations could be made to accept "the dissociation of power from the body" , present generations will not. Urban youth today are not passive or compliant. The rewards dangled before them of a decent job and material wealth for those who do well in school are either seen as undesirable or unattainable by too many. New strategies for providing an education that is perceived as meaningful, relevant and which begins to tap into the intrinsic desire of all individuals to obtain greater personal fulfillment, must be devised and supported. Anything short of this will leave us mired in a situation that grows increasingly depressing and dangerous each day.
Published in In Motion Magazine January 12, 1997
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