The discovery of a Columbine-like shooting plot by four New Bedford, Mass. high school students has renewed debate about how best to prevent school violence. In this March 2001 article, Lindsay Sobel explores promising programs that teach the foundations of conflict resolution before students even enter high school.
This month, a 15-year-old boy -- ridiculed as "Anorexic Andy" at his San Diego area high school -- allegedly opened fire, killing two of his classmates and wounding 13 more. Bewildered students recall that teenagers taunted Andy about his wiry frame and big ears, and even stole his skateboard and shoes. Andy had talked of suicide before the shooting spree. The following day, the girl labeled "Psycho" and "Weirdo" at her Pennsylvania school was arrested on charges of shooting a classmate. Like so many perpetrators of school violence, both students suffered harassment -- and both chose the most deadly response.
Americans are agonizing about how to prevent such tragedies, suggesting gun control measures and school metal detectors. But practitioners in the growing field of conflict resolution training think they have a more potent and meaningful solution: teaching peace. Take the non-profit Peace Games, which sends volunteers into elementary and middle schools to teach communication skills and problem solving. The organization's executive director, Eric Dawson, argues that children learn to be aggressive by witnessing violence at home, in their communities, and in the media. Some children are victims of child abuse; others suffer deeply at the hands of schoolyard bullies. Those experiences have powerful effects, but as Peace Games claims, "If violent behavior can be learned, so can the skills of peacemaking."
Peace Games is teaching those skills at the Mattahunt Community School in Boston. To get there, you have to drive through what seems like miles of graveyards. According to Peace Games site director Ingrid Hoogendoorn, many students bussed through those graveyards are victims of violence or poverty. But inside the school, the walls are covered with posters and bright murals depicting positive cultural images for the diverse -- though almost entirely non-white -- student body.
In this large elementary school, 10 AmeriCorps volunteers work full-time, teaching conflict resolution in every class. In one 4th and 5th grade bilingual classroom, three young volunteers work with Somali- and Kenyan-American students. They move rapidly through activities, trying to keep the children interested. First, they ask students to write the names of women they admire on construction paper leaves so they can make a tree in honor of International Women's Day. (They gently encourage one boy to rewrite his when he puts a man's name on his leaf.)
Then it's on to planning a puppet show about the immigrant experience. When prompted, the children call out, when we know each other better, there is less fighting -- a key lesson of the program. Volunteer Darby Hickey explains that children sometimes tease the girls who wear headscarves and other bilingual students.
Students begin to brainstorm about their own experiences for the puppet show. Sahra recalls that when she arrived in the United States, "I was worse than shy." No longer. Soon the volunteers are leading a discussion about the meaning of the word courage. "Someone who can stand up for themselves and other people!"
"Someone who never gives up their dreams!"
Such a lesson would make Dawson all verklemt. Earnestly, he quotes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to describe his mission: "True peace is not merely the absence of tension. It is the presence of justice." In other words, you can't just tell students not to fight; you have to give them alternatives: Talk it out. Try to see the situation from the other person's point of view. Or -- and Dawson loves this one -- organize. Peace Games teaches students to speak up about racism, sexism, and homophobia as much as it admonishes kids not to pummel each other. And it includes community service as a key part of its training at every grade level.
The volunteers at Mattahunt are happy to comply. Later in the day, three instructors use Dr. Seuss' Yertle the Turtle to prompt another set of students to talk about fighting the power. They also lead the "courage" discussion, asking students to describe a time when they stood up for someone else, when someone stood up for them, or when a person in history stood up for what he or she believed. Fresh out of the lessons of Black History Month, many of the students in the entirely African-American class write about Rosa Parks and Dr. King.
Others proudly recall a time when bullies were harassing them and a sibling beat the kid up in their defense. Struggling with the twin lesson that people must stand up for what they believe, but not act violently, the volunteers patiently ask students to think of other ways they could defend a friend besides using physical force.
These lessons need constant reinforcement. Schools have site directors who coordinate volunteers and sometimes teach parent workshops, or run after school programs to keep children busy when they might otherwise be getting into trouble. At Mattahunt, an AmeriCorps volunteer runs the Planning Center, where disruptive students can talk out their problems and write down a plan for better behavior in the future.
Students might still get into fights at school, but now they have a vocabulary to analyze their behavior -- and how to avoid the conflict next time. They use the "conflict escalator": What happened first? What heightened the disagreement at each step? What could students have done to cool down instead of fire up?
Eventually, students may learn to defuse conflict and communicate better, say program advocates. Such skills can be useful in improving students' relationships with each other, decreasing discrimination at school, and reducing hurtful bullying. When students learn to interact peacefully, they argue, fewer will feel under siege -- and fewer will want to lash out. In the long run, practitioners hope, those who learn these lessons will develop more trusting relationships with their families, be more effective in the workplace, and contribute to their communities.
Those are high hopes for a program that relies on an hour of instruction a week. Therefore, Peace Games asks teachers to expand its lessons in the classroom. Though many are enthusiastic, a few aren't -- volunteers report that teacher buy-in is one of their biggest challenges (a fact that practitioners in other conflict resolution programs confirm). Hickey explains that a couple of teachers are verbally abusive to their students, putting them down in class, or teaching Peace Games but telling students to "Shut up!"
One factor inhibiting some teachers' enthusiasm is the increasing pressure to help their students excel on standardized tests. That's why Peace Games volunteers try to incorporate academic and emotional learning into their weekly lessons. Today, the kindergarten Peace Games teachers read a book about family and ask students to spell the word before discussing the concept of family diversity. Hoogendoorn maintains that students also learn better when Peace Games takes some of the distracting and disruptive conflict out of the classroom and schoolyard.
Peace Games is not the only organization teaching "peacemaking" skills -- though it does have an exceptional focus on social justice and community service. The national Resolving Conflict Creatively Program trains teachers in instruction on conflict resolution. Second Step of Seattle and PeaceBuilders out of Tucson run similar programs. All report extraordinary results.
According to surveys, these programs produce significantly improved communication between students, and decreased playground fighting, tension, violence, principal referrals, and suspensions. When San Bernadino, California schools implemented the PeaceBuilders program, the neighborhood crime rate decreased. And in New York's experiment with Resolving Conflict Creatively, students' test scores even improved.
Despite these positive reports however, few conflict resolution programs have been scientifically studied. Since these programs can take time from already overworked teachers and money from financially strapped schools, serious, relevant studies could convince more educators to fund and implement the programs. And positive results could build enthusiasm among teachers as well. Studies could also help schools decide which program, if any, to implement.
As the threat of school violence increasingly worries students, parents, and school administrators, the need for careful studies of promising programs is urgent. Practitioners argue that a conflict resolution program could have helped prevent the two school shootings this month. First, because they teach students to respect each other, and that taunting students who are different is not acceptable. Second, these programs give students the resources to control their anger, and communicate without resorting to murder. If preliminary survey results prove true -- in preventing violence as well as improving relationships and self-esteem -- expanding conflict resolution programs may be a school reform worth fighting for.