School Violence

To Address School Violence, We Must Reconsider the Governance of Schools

John Hood is research director at the John Locke Foundation, a state policy think tank in Raleigh, N.C., and a contributing editor of Reason magazine.

When politicians talk about education issues, they often mention such topics as school spending, teacher quality, parental involvement, and the curriculum. But when teachers talk about education issues, they almost always zero in on the topic that most concerns them: school violence. In talking to teachers around my home state of North Carolina, I have found this to be universally true. Teachers bring it up whether it’s retelling a “horror story,” complaining about school boards and lawyers protecting students from punishment, or simply observing that students “aren’t what they used to be.”

The public seems to share teachers’ concerns about escalating violence in our schools. Remember the film Lean on Me? Despite carping from the education establishment—made up, to a large extent, of psychologists, consultants, professors of education, and professional activists—the film, which presented a story of one principal’s tough stand against school violence, captured the imagination of movie audiences. A less successful but arguably better film, Stand and Deliver, dealt with the motivational and instructional techniques of Los Angeles math teacher Jaime Escalante, who used humor as well as “tough love” to teach calculus to a class of poor, sometimes violent teens. Other movies on gang life, teenage violence, and the drug subculture have also scored with audiences, while public opinion polls have found great concern about discipline and violence issues. Again, the public perception, at least, is that things “aren’t what they used to be.”

And the evidence is that they aren’t. Violence in schools is up. Discipline is less predictable and not uniformly enforced. Students are, according to most teachers, more difficult to keep quiet, harder to teach, and deficient in basic personal and behavioral skills. Yet educational activists tend to focus more on opposing discipline practices they abhor—such as corporal punishment and expulsion—than on addressing the problem. In fact, today’s public educators are probably incapable of dealing effectively with school violence and discipline problems. To do so requires rethinking how education is organized and the proper relationship between pupil and teacher, and more generally, between pupil and school.

Defining the Problem

No one keeps comprehensive statistics about school violence, but the numbers we do have are distressing, to say the least. Young people, who represent about 20 percent of the population, account for over 40 percent of reported crimes and almost half of the youths charged with serious offenses are under 15. Some researchers suggest that the level of violent crime perpetrated by juveniles is three times greater today than it was in 1960. Many of these acts are committed at school, some with guns or other dangerous weapons.

A 1987 survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that more than a third of eighth and tenth graders said they had been threatened with some sort of violence while at school. Fourteen percent reported being robbed and 13 percent said they had been attacked within the past year. Another report, by the National School Safety Center, found that:

• Almost 300,000 students are attacked in schools every month.

• Over 2 million students are the victims of theft.

• Approximately 5,200 secondary school teachers are physically attacked at school in a month’s time, while 6,000 per month report extortion or robberies against them.

A few states have generated more recent numbers. A 1992 survey by North Carolina’s Task Force on School Violence found that 59 percent of school systems reported an increase in violent behavior over the previous five years. School superintendents also reported marked increases in the prevalence of guns, knives, and other weapons at school. During this same time period, the number of reported arrests of young people 15 years old or younger for violent offenses doubled.

While these crime and violence numbers are shocking, by far the most pervasive problem is not criminal behavior per se, but a destructive and painful pattern of misbehavior, threats, and disrespect directed toward teachers and principals. This problem is harder to quantify, because no crime report is generated, but teachers have noticed a change in student behavior over the last 30 years or so. Instructor magazine columnist Adele M. Brodkin began to call attention to the problem with a series of interview features in 1990. Brodkin asked Wendy Jacobs, a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher in Caswell County, North Carolina, what teachers find most challenging about teaching today’s children. “That’s easy,” Jacobs replied, “the biggest challenge is dealing with discipline. We have to contend with disruptive behavior, fighting amongst the kids, shouting, physical and verbal abuse, acting silly, being disrespectful of the teacher—all sort of behavior that can take so much of a teacher’s time and energy.”

William C. Lane, Jr., an assistant principal at Dunbar Middle School in Ft. Myers, Florida, says that the process of gaining control over the classroom is in fact “the cornerstone” of education and “an integral part of an effective school.” Older teachers who remember a time of stronger discipline and fewer problems with students are especially vocal about the change in their perception of child behavior. A July 1989 survey by the American Federation of Teachers reported that over 80 percent of AFT officials around the country considered teenage violence a bigger problem today than in the past. Charles H. Wolfgang, a professor of early childhood education at Florida State University, tells of meeting a former English teacher of his at a neighborhood mall and proudly announcing that he, too, had become a teacher. “The twinkle I recalled as being ever-present in her warm blue eyes seemed to be missing,” Wolfgang remembers. “As I spoke to her of our shared profession, her body stiffened and she responded in a cold tone of voice. ‘I retired last year, thank God! I am glad to have gotten out of teaching. Students have changed. They certainly aren’t interested in learning! And there are just too many discipline problems.’”

In fact, surveys for Phi Delta Kappan (a prominent education magazine) by the Gallup Organization have consistently ranked violence and discipline problems as one of the major reasons why public-school teachers leave the profession, a finding buttressed by the fact that private schools, which generally pay lower salaries and offer fewer benefits to their teaching staff, often receive plenty of applications from public-school teachers. The flight of good teachers from public schools can’t be explained only by increasing safety concerns, but violence is undoubtedly an important factor in many cases. In Policy Review, Ben Wildavsky reported the case of Tom Masty, a teacher at a South Florida middle school. In Masty’s first 10 weeks at the school, he wrote over 300 referrals for student misconduct. He confiscated weapons, broke up fights, and struggled to maintain control over his classroom. He quit shortly afterward.

Why Violence Is Increasing

Obviously, the wave of American school violence in many ways reflects underlying social trends. Crime generally has increased over the last several decades as well, so it’s not surprising that violent and criminal behavior has risen in schools.

An important explanation of the rise in school violence can be found in changes in the American family. As the traditional two-parent model has given way to escalating numbers of single-parent families, children have often been put at risk, neglected, abused, and marginalized, resulting in discipline problems at school. One study of children with teenaged mothers found they were more likely to exhibit behavioral problems such as running away, fighting, stealing, and smoking than were children of older mothers. A 1989 study of children whose parents have divorced noted that five years after their parents broke up, only 34 percent of the children were clearly doing well at school. The remainder exhibited significant behavioral and academic problems. Many school administrators report that the majority of students suspended or expelled in their schools have either been sexually or physically abused or have a high incidence of substance abuse in the family.

While many of these social trends are partially or completely out of the reach of public policy, some government activities—such as the welfare system and punitive taxation of families—put pressure on families. Researchers such as Charles Murray and Mickey Kaus have identified at least some link between federal welfare payments and undesirable behavior. By subsidizing broken families, welfare can rob children of the stable home life they need to develop into healthy, well-adjusted teens.

But blaming the entire problem of school violence on social trends and family breakup would be a mistake, since it would ignore the crucial role of the school in setting rules of behavior and enforcing them. School policies do affect student behavior, as the experience of inner-city Catholic schools and other private schools demonstrates. Not surprisingly, students respond to credible promises of punishment and come to respect authority when it is exercised constantly and uniformly.

Unfortunately, the modern public school in America is ill-suited to develop a realistic response to school violence. A host of administrative decisions, court rulings, and legislative actions have created such a maze of regulations that school principals and teachers are often unable to exercise meaningful control over their schools. Furthermore, the prevailing “ethos” in the education establishment—made up of researchers, administrators, and bureaucrats—is suspicious of many forms of punishment, and exhibits a fixation with “sensitivity training” and building self-esteem among students.

Legal Restrictions and School Discipline

A range of school disciplinary measures, ranging from public embarrassment to expulsion, have been successfully challenged in court. In the 1975 case Goss v. Lopez, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment gave students the right to receive oral or written notice of the charges against them and, if they deny the charges, an explanation of the evidence and a chance to tell their side of the story. While no formal hearing was required for short-term suspensions, the Court suggested that more formal procedures might be required to impose longer suspensions or expulsions. While suspension remains an important response to acts of violence by students, these procedural limitations have made administrators more hesitant to use them.

Restrictions on suspension and expulsion are especially troubling because of the great damage that violent and disruptive students can do to the educational process. These students not only disrupt the classroom, thus making it difficult for other students to learn, but also generally weaken the authority of teachers and administrators. “This type of student,” writes education researcher Kurran Heston, “has a negative effect on everyone around him or her.” It’s in the interest of the majority of students that schools be able to quickly eject such students from class. “Eighty to ninety percent of the kids in a classroom are good kids,” Oakland, California, schoolteacher Ruth Meltsner told Policy Review. “A small number are impossible and you spend all your time dealing with them.”

Other decisions have further limited school disciplinary practices. Indeed, Heston notes that since 1950, “schools have been placed under the jurisdiction of the courts, whereas the court may decide it is necessary to step in regarding discipline.” James S. Coleman, who has conducted landmark studies comparing public and private school students, argues that “the growth of student rights constitutes a fundamental change in the relation of the school to the student, which had been that of trustee for parental authority.” This has been replaced, Coleman says, by a relation in which the student “is regarded as having full civil rights.”

Extending civil-rights protection to unruly students has created an unworkable, and sometimes absurd, situation in public schools. “The due process system assumes bad faith on the part of teachers,” says Bruce A. Miller, special counsel to the American Federation of Teachers, “but teachers aren’t lawyers—they have to have some freedom of action.” Sociologist Jackson Toby agrees, and observed that a generation ago it was possible for principals to rule schools autocratically, to suspend or expel students without much regard for procedure. While some injustices occurred, the administrators were able to avoid significant violence and discipline problems. “Student assaults on teachers were punished so swiftly that they were almost un thinkable,” Toby wrote.

But it is not only the most stringent disciplinary actions that are subject to judicial negation. Consider, for example, the commonsensical idea that teachers and principals should be able to reduce student grades as a punishment for constant misconduct or violence. Several courts have struck down grade-reduction policies, treating grades earned for academic performance as a constitutionally protected “property interest.”

Applying the Criminal Justice Model to Schools

A number of other actions—ranging from locker searches to dress codes—are frequently challenged by students, parents, politicians, and judges. Applying the criminal justice model to the school situation reflects a strange sense of priorities. Fascinated with whether or not an administrator has “probable cause” to search a locker—which is, after all, the property of the school and not the student—these critics prevent administrators from controlling the availability of weapons and drugs on school grounds. (Of course, administrators have at times gone too far—initiating strip searches without reasonable cause, for instance. Thus, schools must remain ultimately accountable for their decisions.)

Even a modest policy such as a dress code can help reduce discipline problems and even violence at school. So-called “gang” clothing often sparks conflict between students, while valuable jewelry or athletic shoes become the objectives in robberies and thefts. Such restrictions are obviously unthinkable in adult society, but the school environment is—or, at least, should be—different.

Not only are school policies found to violate students’ so-called constitutional rights, but school officials are also potentially liable for civil damages. Naturally, administrators act increasingly warily when disciplining students. Classroom safety and student performance have deteriorated as a result.

How the Education Establishment Views Discipline

Surveying the academic literature on school violence and discipline will leave the average person with an almost irresistible urge to alternately laugh and cry. When you see such article titles as “Should Students Be Punished?” and “Multicultural Classroom Management,” you know you’ve entered a world of make-believe, divorced from the reality of dangerous classrooms and disruptive students. “The case against punishment has been steadily growing,” wrote John Martin Rich, a professor of education at the University of Texas at Austin. “Critics claim that [even] nonphysical punishment can damage relationships, create resentment, and compel rather than encourage obedience. Moreover, punishment may promote school absenteeism, dropping out, school vandalism, and excessive anxiety.” Education “experts” hated the film Lean on Me because they thought it sent an overly simplistic message about the efficacy of discipline and expulsion to reduce violence and increase student achievement. “Its popularity shows how badly the public can be deceived when offered easy solutions to its fears of teenagers, blacks, Hispanics, drugs, and crime,” wrote one particularly excitable professor in Education Week. “In fact, the public support [Joe] Clark has gained for his tough-guy antics may well demonstrate the fragility of democracy.”

The self-esteem craze is particularly amusing. Over the past couple of decades, programs to boost self-esteem among students have proliferated in many school systems. “The litany of statistics about self-destructive tendencies such as substance abuse, crime, and suicide must surely be seen as a signal from young people that many do not find much about themselves to like,” wrote education professor James A. Beane in Educational Leadership, a prominent journal. Beane argues that enhancing self-esteem in school will, in addition to addressing behavioral and academic problems, “extend the idea of personal development beyond coping with problems and into personal efficacy or power, which, in turn, may lead toward action,” thereby helping to “build the personal and collective efficacy that helps us out of the morass of inequity that plagues us.”

Beane and others assume that a lack of self-esteem leads to crime and substance abuse. In fact, violent students are often fixated with themselves and quite comfortable with their actions—and continue to commit crimes because they think they won’t be punished.

Other education “experts” contend that school violence stems from racial and cultural inequities and therefore cannot be effectively combatted by disciplinary efforts. Herbert Grossman, a teacher at San Jose State University, wrote in Contemporary Education that the population of the United States is rapidly becoming less “EuroAmerican.” As a result, he says, fewer students respond positively to and profit from classroom management techniques “that have been designed with EuroAmerican middle-class students in mind.” Grossman advocates “cultural sensitivity” when operating classrooms containing racial minorities. What about misbehavior and discipline? Grossman questions whether minority students can be expected to “sit in a quiet and controlled manner.”

Education “experts” often argue that discipline is used in a discriminatory manner, and that attempts to combat school violence are merely smokescreens for punitive actions against minority students. Prejudice, Grossman writes, “drives many minority and working-class students to actively resist both their teachers and the system by purposefully misbehaving.” Prejudice, he continues, “may also contribute to the unnecessary suspension of so many African- American, Hispanic, and working-class students.” In conclusion, Grossman asserts that “the elimination of teacher prejudice is one of the most important steps educators can take to reduce disciplinary problems with minority students.”

Both the self-esteem and multicultural fixations represent a fundamental challenge to the role of punishment and discipline in deterring school violence. Even more radical theorists enjoy some following in the education establishment, which has traditionally included radicals whose view of incorrigible students and nonconformists was more positive than negative. They’re the kind of people who refer to the 1992 riots in Los Angeles as a “rebellion.” In the school context, they view strong action against violent students as punishing society’s victims, rather than addressing crime’s so-called “root causes.”

Toward Solutions

Radical theorists like these would present little threat to sound school administration if it were not for the current structure of American education. A system of publicly owned, controlled, and regulated schools, staffed by public employees and subject to the control of outside public authorities, is incapable of withstanding today’s assault against punishment and common sense. Similarly, the legal restraints and requirements that have been placed on the administration of school discipline and security measures exist because of school’s public nature.

In some districts, to be sure, violence has become so common that traditional obstacles to security measures have been overcome. A number of schools have banned gang clothing and insignia, as well as opaque book bags. San Diego’s school system got rid of lockers, which resulted in inconvenience for students but also reduced gun crimes, robberies, and graffiti. Programs to encourage positive behavior and involve parents are great, says San Diego school police chief Alex Rascon, but in the meantime “the answer is to lock the campuses down. Have everyone enter through one door, sign in, and have permission to see a teacher ahead of time.” Good security, Rascon adds, is inconvenient “but we just cannot dilly-dally around with the way things are now.” It’s unfortunate, however, that conditions have to escalate to crisis level before school administrators are given leave to take basic steps to reduce the threat of violence.

Private schools, by comparison, often maintain strict and uniform regulations that result in few incidents of violence or disruption, even in inner cities or other areas where crime is an integral part of the surrounding neighborhood. Private schools mete out not only more effective, but in many students’ minds, fairer discipline, according to James Coleman: “This suggests that the legalistic approach to ensuring fairness in discipline may be less effective than other approaches . . . [and] may indeed be counterproductive for effectiveness of discipline.”

In a private school setting, the role of the student is not that of “citizen” (to use the Supreme Court’s term) with constitutional rights. Rather, the relationship with teacher and administrator is an economic one; if school personnel no longer believe they can handle a violent student, they do not have to continue providing him with educational services. In addition, private schools are often smaller, less bureaucratic, and, frankly, better able to keep kids interested in learning—all of which contribute to a greater sense of safety and security.

Thus, to address the epidemic of school violence in America, we will have to reconsider the governance of schools themselves. Any other measure—from peer counseling to handgun control—will ultimately fail without a fundamental change in the relationship between student and school. Schools must discipline, but they will be free to do so only when released from the political constraints of the present system. At the same time, they must be held directly accountable to parents and students (their customers) if punishment becomes capricious or excessive. In short, we must adopt a private model for education. The intellectual and psychological development of all our children—and, some cases, their lives—depend on it.