Bullies, Vicitms, and Choices
Many concerned educators, citizen groups, religious organizations, politicians, social service organizations and law enforcement agencies have been justifiably alarmed about the magnitude of school violence in the United States that has been reported in our recent news. All of these groups have developed some plan of action to make our schools safer. There is however no one simple solution to the very complex problem of school violence, and its shadow, the fear of violence that haunts our youth and hampers their learning.
However, the perception of too much violence in our schools is not something that came about just because of recent acts of violence within which guns were involved and people were killed. School Boards, teachers, and administrators have shown concern about the escalation of violence in our schools dating back at least as far as 1993. The National School Board Association reports the findings of a national survey of 1,216 administrators that there were more violent acts in their school in 1993 than five years before.
Violence in schools is a reality. At the same time we need to pay attention to the fact that the vast majority of our youth are not violent. The potential victims of violence however must live with fear, fear that can interfere with their ability to focus on the academic subjects and the skills they are in school to learn. On the hierarchy of needs scale developed by Abraham Maslow, safety and security are essential to the successful pursuit of higher order needs such as learning and creativity.
Parents are advised to create safety plans with their children and remind them they can talk to trusted adults anytime they feel threatened. This message could lead us to believe that the fear of violence is more of a threat than the potential act of violence.
Lets look at some of the solutions. Many strategies to curb violence in school and society are designed to respond to violence after it has occurred rather than to prevent it.
While most believe security measures are necessary, they do not provide a long-term solution to a very complex problem. A female graduate of Columbine put it this way, "Hiring more security guards will only limit the means by which kids can harm each other."
Many strategies are aimed at maintaining order, monitoring students movements in and around the school by teachers, administrators, parents, and security guards, institutionalizing dress codes, establishing crisis lines, and the distribution of clearly stated school rules to students and their parents.
In addition to strategies designed to respond to violence during a crisis, to prevent violence through controlling for weapons on school premises and to maintain a stricter order in and around school buildings, there are many programs that focus on vigilance in identifying the potential perpetrators of violence.
Programs for students at risk range all the way from scare tactics and expulsion, to counseling programs and alternative educational programs. Programs such as Scared Straight did a show and tell strategy by taking juvenile offenders to visit a local prison where in mates tell the truth about where their violent and unlawful behaviors will get them.
Expulsions however can lead to violent students returning with even more anger. Counseling programs are frequently less effective than they might be because the average high school counselor has far too many students to advise and not nearly enough support.
Alternative education programs do their part in helping the potential perpetrators of violence.
The number and kinds of programs that focus on potential perpetrators of violence are too many and too diverse to describe in detail in this writing. Many of these programs are effective in addressing the needs of at risk youth. They are an indispensably part of a solution to the problem of violence in our schools. Unfortunately, many of them are understaffed and under-funded.
There are programs that focus on changing the behaviors of potentially violent children before their behaviors escalate into real problems. They range from teaching preschool children to get in touch with their feelings to teaching kindergarten children to be nice to each other.
Addressing the needs of potential perpetrators of violence however necessary does not address the needs of the majority of our youth who are non violent empathic human beings, the ones who just have to live with the shadow of violence, the fear that impedes their ability to learn what schools were intended to teach.
There are two fine programs that attempt to address the needs of the majority of students. Teaching Tolerance is a program that attempts to promote tolerance through understanding differences (teaching empathy). And, Peer Mediation that focuses on keeping a conflict between students from getting violent, that is to resolve conflict with words not weapons.
Assertiveness training is one program that addresses the needs of (victims) students who are the potential victims of direct confrontations, or innocent bystanders who might be hurt in the crossfire. As important as these programs are, they still address only half of the equation.
There are no programs that I know of that directly addresses the relationship between bullies and victims.
An article in the Boston Globe "School Violence Summit has Local Administrators Focusing on Prevention (September 19) by Leslie Anderson, a Columbine graduate states "When Columbine happened the issue was the students didnt like each other. There were problems in the school that festered and literally blew up on them.
There are two less frequently cited theories to explain why our youth have become so violent: our systems failure to adequately promote cooperation and our childrens prolonged adolescence and dependence on authority.
Teenagersnot quite adults, not quite kids, and not quite jaded by the reality that life is not quite fairmight have an important edge for keeping minor altercations from escalating into violence. Given the opportunity, the skills, the encouragement to be self- reliant, and a culture that promotes and nurtures cooperation, they may be able to break the bully/victim cycle, at least in the simple context within which they live their everyday lives.
Look at it this way: A hundred years ago, people were expected to take on adult responsibilities when they were as young as twelve years of age. Self-reliance and mediating minor altercations without involving central authority were the norm. Our modern technological world requires a longer learning curve before our youth can be adequately prepared to deal with life as defined by Silicon Valley and the big city. The result is the creation of a whole, relatively new, segment of societyteenagers. Teenagers are people who are caught in kind of a limbo, between being adults, who have all the freedoms and the responsibilities of citizens, and being dependent kids, whose primary responsibilities are to study their lessons and follow the rules.
Promoting cooperation through the TIT for TAT strategies of reciprocity go beyond vigilance in the reporting of potential problems and mediating conflict between peers. Teaching students the skills of reciprocity can reduce fear by empowering students to be part of the solution that can change the environment from one of competition, coercion and combat to one of cooperation. In a context of cooperation, peaceful co-existence, respect and tolerance can be achieved without necessarily reaching agreement between adversaries or even the desire to understand differences.
There is evidence that the tit for tat strategies of reciprocity are capable of encouraging cooperation even between adversaries. Robert Axelrod in his book "The Evolution of Cooperation describes how soldiers on opposite sides of a war cooperated to reduce the number of causalities, to call temporary truces when the weather was bad, to allow enemy soldiers time to eat their rations without gunfire, even to call a truce that lasted a day and a half through the Christmas holiday. The soldiers were able to achieve a live and let live attitude with a tit for tat strategy of reciprocity in spite of direct orders from their superiors to fight more aggressively.
Teaching Reciprocity is different from most programs because it focuses on changing the environment within which students encounter each other, as opposed to changing individuals who might become perpetrators of violence. In the background section of the description of the grant proposal guide, it is stated that "The homicide rate for young males, aged 15-34, in the United States is the highest of any industrialized country, roughly 20 times higher than homicide rates in most other nations.
Alfie Kohn, in his book "No Contest: The Case Against Competition" states that the United States is also the most competitive nation in the world. There may be no direct link between these two facts, however it would be difficult to argue the point that we teach our children to compete more vigorously than we teach them to cooperate. Teaching cooperation through reciprocity has the potential to change the imbalance between competition and cooperation in our culture.
The Theory of Cooperation according to Axelrod and Rapoport states that reciprocity and a TIT for TAT strategy promotes cooperation in a context where individuals know they will be encountering each other on an on going basis for some time to come.
Teaching Cooperation through reciprocity can be applied in schools, in businesses, in industries, in families, in social organizations, and any environment where people interact on a regular basis.
We have a multitude of complex choices for reducing the escalation of violence in our schools, our families, our neighborhoods, and our larger communities and between our nations. There is no one solution that I know of, but this I know is true our very survival as a species depends on our ability to cooperate.