Why popular strategies for disciplining students
have proven to be largely ineffective
Dr. Pedro Antonio Noguera is a professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also past-president of the Berkeley School Board. This analysis (© 1997) is published here by In Motion Magazine as a series of hyper-linked articles which can be downloaded in segments. All sections can be reached from this page, or readers can follow from one section to another. Footnotes and referenceswill open to a new window and therefore can be left open for easy viewing.
The phrase "fighting violence" might seem to be an oxymoron. For those concerned with finding ways to prevent or reduce the occurrence of violence, "fighting" it might seem to be the wrong way to describe or to engage in the effort to address the problem. To the extent that "fighting" evokes images of violence, it might seem that the old axiom that "You can't fight fire with fire", would suggest that another verb might be more appropriate. However, the choice of terms is not accidental. The prevailing wisdom among policy makers and school officials is that you must counter violence with force; that schools can be made safe by converting them into prison-like facilities;(13) and that the best way to curtail violence is to identify, apprehend and exclude students who have the potential for committing acts of violence from the rest of the population. (14) For this reason, it is important to examine the ideological stance taken toward violence when critiquing the methods used to fight against it, for without doing so it is not possible to understand why failed strategies retain popularity.
In the campaign against school violence, school officials often point to statistics related to the number of weapons confiscated, the number of students suspended, expelled or arrested for violent reasons, as evidence that something is being done about the problem. The number of reported incidents of violence is also used to demonstrate that while valiant efforts are being made to reduce violence, the problem persists, and therefore the fight against violence must continue. (15) The compilation of such data plays an important role in rationalizing the expenditure of resources on security related services; resource allocations that often result in the elimination of other educational programs and services. Such information is also instrumental in framing the public discourse about violence, for as long as it can be shown that quantifiable results are obtained as a result of the fight against violence, combatants in the war can be assured of continued financial backing.(16)
For parents and students who live with the reality of violence and who must contend with the threat of physical harm on a daily basis, such data is largely meaningless, and does little to allay fears. When engaging in what were once ordinary activities, such as walking to school or playing in a park, evokes such extreme paranoia so as to no longer seem feasible, news that arrests or suspensions have increased provides little in the way of reassurance.
Not long ago, I attended a meeting with school officials from an urban school district on the west coast, at which we were discussing the problem of violence and what could be done about it. In reviewing data on the incidence of violence from the past year I jokingly made the following remark: "Here's some good news, homicides are down 100% from last year". To my amazement, an administrator replied: "Yes, the news isn't all bad. Some of our efforts are beginning to pay off". What surprised me about the comment was his apparent belief that since there had been no murders at any of the schools in the district at the midpoint of the school year, as compared to two which occurred during the previous academic year, that there was reason for hope and optimism. I found it hard to believe that district administrators, who generally have little contact with school sites on a regular basis, could accept a statistical analysis as evidence that the schools had in fact become safer.
Yet, within the context of the fight against violence, symbols such as crime statistics take on great significance, even though they have little bearing upon the actual occurrence of violence. Pressed to demonstrate to the public that the efforts to reduce violence are effective, school districts often pursue one of two strategies: either they present statistics quantifying the results of their efforts, or they go to great lengths to suppress information altogether hoping that the community will perceive no news as good news. Metal detectors, barbed wire fences, armed guards and policemen, and principals wielding baseball bats as they patrol the halls, are all symbols of tough action. And while most students realize that a student who wants to bring a weapon to school can get it into a building without being discovered by a metal detector, or that it is highly unlikely that any principal will hit a student with a baseball bat, the symbols persist lest the truth be known that those responsible really don't have a clue about what to do to stem the tide of violence.