TCLA's School Accountability Report Card Series: Features: 5/6

Photo: Ron Avi Astor

Tools for Reducing School Violence:

An Interview with School Violence Expert Professor Ron Avi Astor

Many schools in Los Angeles continue to suffer from various forms of violence. USC Professor Ron Avi Astor researches children's understanding of violence and school violence interventions. In this interview he talks to TCLA about effective tools for reducing violence in schools.

"In reality, we’re not just talking about programs and interventions, but a unique perspective of creating democracy within the lives of children and teachers. That’s really a different angle than the current school safety programs that are very psychological or security oriented."

TCLA: What are some of the best tools for students and teachers to use to reduce violence in their schools?

Ron Astor: The word violence covers very many different kinds of behaviors: sexual harassment, weapons use, teacher violence, gang violence, verbal issues, isolation, and many others. There are a lot of different programs and procedures to reduce violence in schools, but I think the most important tool that teachers, principals, and students are missing is knowledge of exactly what is happening at their school site. How many fights are in their school? How many kids are affected by issues of sexual harassment? What grades are being impacted most? How are teachers responding? Very few schools know if they have 50 or 500 violent acts during the course of a month or a year. What people remember is what they heard or the most severe events. What we learned from our work in Israel is that giving recommendations to specific schools without knowing what is happening at the local site is usually not helpful. One school might have a serious problem with sexual harassment, at another school, it might be weapons use, yet, at another school it might be teachers being abusive to kids. Each one of these requires a very different strategy. Also, depending on who you talk to in schools, different groups might think that one form of violence is more common than other ones—often, word-of-mouth and rumors don’t reflect the entire picture of what happens in a large social setting like a school.

In some cases the solution to the problems are very simple. In one school we worked with, the actual lack of supervision and monitoring on the playground was the major culprit. They had one adult to five hundred kids. In that case, it was just a matter of teachers, students, and administrators coming up with creative monitoring systems on the playground. In this case it was very important to come up with some system so that there were school officials or people who knew how to organize activities, mediate conflict, follow correct procedures, and interact with students on the playground. That’s not necessarily a program — we just listened to what the teachers and students said, and based on that, engaged them in a process where they came up with solutions identified by the people in the school.

It’s very important for the teachers, parents, and students to have a basic survey sampling of their students and teachers and do it many times during the year. The majority of schools in America don’t have updated social climate or school violence data or it’s two or three years old. We found that it’s important to have data from that year and not from a prior year. People often say that data doesn’t change things, but we see it as a form of having a voice. If students and teachers see data changing things, it actually becomes a very powerful change agent.

"Using democracy as the basis for their bullying programs, Norway was able to reduce school bullying by 50% — for an entire country. Think of how much pain and suffering would be avoided by such a drop in our country. "

TCLA: How have you engaged students on reporting on where they feel safe and where they don't in school?

RA: Students don’t usually have the opportunity to tell teachers and administrators their thoughts or opinions. The survey is a sort of a vote or a collective voice — it’s a way of letting people, particularly youth, have a collective powerful voice. If students know that their information is going to be used, then it’s not just data collected, it’s actually a form of empowerment because they know that what they say is going to be used to change things. I don’t think students or teachers believe that data is helpful because often times data just is collected and is not used. This is wrong in our view. Data must be collected with a collective purpose to improve the educational process. We believe you can’t have democracy in a school without current, comprehensive, and ongoing data.

For example, at one particular school, the kids we were working with were having problems on their routes to and from school. The school brought in a character education curriculum to deal with “bullying.” The faculty and students conducted a survey and were able to see that only 10% of the kids liked the character program that the school bought, the other 90% thought that the school should be doing something specific about the routes to and from school. Then the student council looked at the data and they started creating a new program supervising the routes to and from school. The students could see that their thoughts and recommendations were actually heard. The data from the survey was brought to the attention of local police and even the mayor’s office. This then led to better lighting, community watch programs, creating corridors of safety with teachers and parents, and even using older students from the high school to help secure the routes to and from school. Because they collected data in an ongoing way, they were able to measure how effective these grassroots interventions were. And they were quite effective. So, using the survey was a true form of democracy, a checks and balances, and social feedback system. All children had an ongoing voice. That is really the cornerstone of a democracy.

In reality, we’re not just talking about programs and interventions, but a unique perspective of creating democracy within the lives of children and teachers. That’s really a different angle than the current school safety programs that are very psychological or security oriented. We believe there is safety in a well informed organized collective. In order to reduce school violence and increase safety, you need to really impact the entire system of schools. That’s what democracies do. They have a set of ideal procedural concepts that protect individuals from violence and abuse and charge the collective with dealing with violence and crime in a just and fair way. Currently, the only shred of democracy in schools is the student council. There really is no due process surrounding the most common forms of school violence. There is no expectation that the observing crowd of students who occasionally encourage school fights be held morally responsible to help victims as citizens in our democracy are expected to do.

"Programs that distinguish between danger and safety are stronger. You can reduce the amount of violence in the school quite a bit and still have kids feeling very unsafe. For instance, you can have a lot of security guards, and they will reduce violence, but it may not help the kids feel safer. Instead, you could be making the school like a prison, feeling basically unsafe. "

There needs to be a whole array of checks and balances in schools and some of it’s already being done in Australia and in Europe. Using democracy as the basis for their bullying programs, Norway was able to reduce school bullying by 50% — for an entire country. Think of how much pain and suffering would be avoided by such a drop in our country. Millions of children would be positively affected. My reading of the intervention literature leads me to believe that when schools have a philosophical approach to school safety they are able to get much stronger effects. That’s why I believe the European models work far better than those we have here, which are strongly based on “psychological” theories and the assumptions of communication, skill, and behavioral deficits in families and children. If anything, I think we have a deficit in democratic processes for children, families, teachers, and communities surrounding the function of schools. If the students feel that they contributed and had a voice in creating the safety of their school, that’s a very different thing than an outsider coming in and suggesting a “one size fits all programs”.

I can tell you that the more involved the teachers and students are in the program, the higher chances are that this will be effective in making their schools safe. Even the programs that are being recommended for use at the national level are not commonly sustained over time without engagement, ownership and involvement. We think that is because the teachers and parents are often being left out of the picture. If the teachers, parents, students, and local community own the program, they often go on for long periods of time and tend to be less costly than those run entirely by professionals.

TCLA: How can teachers integrate these tools into their curriculum?

RA: In our Israel program, the math teachers wanted to integrate school safety in their math curriculum. So they ran surveys in their math class with questions like, “How could you make a class safer?” With the surveys, they were able to spearhead a new art project mural, new grass, and a whole school beautification landscape project. But it wasn’t seen as a separate project from the math curriculum. This is an example of how school safety and math became joined towards improving students’ lives. I believe the students were more motivated to study math because they saw how they could apply it to making their school safer. It also made them feel empowered because they could contribute to the safety of their school in powerful ways. The teacher did not feel school safety was competing with her academic goals when this was done. Now the 8th grade teachers love it and are doing it year after year in their math class. I have examples from literature teachers who have done the same thing. We have examples in physical education where teachers have taken this on and designed curriculum around honoring people’s bodies. Teachers have come up with all sorts of things that are invented by the teachers and the students about school safety. And those kinds of teacher, student, and parent led programs last a long time because the school is invested in it.

"Kids can tell you if they feel comfortable in the hallway, when or why. It’s much more difficult for them to answer the question, 'Do you feel connected to or safe in your school?'"

TCLA: What are the components of the most effective programs that have been used to decrease violence in schools?

RA:

  1. The most effective programs involve the children and teachers at the classroom and school level. Schools should be suspect of programs where an outsider comes into the classroom and the teacher walks outside. Programs that involve schools and teachers as a community are, on the whole, stronger.
  2. Programs that focus only on deficits, the bullies, or victims, or the “problem” of individuals tend not to be sustained or generalized. They may get some small effect. If you’re going to do a bully/victim, weapons reduction, or sexual harassment program, do it for the entire school.
  3. Programs that have the conception of violence as mainly a psychological issue or look like mini-therapy programs tend not to be sustained in schools in the long-run.
  4. Programs that distinguish between danger and safety are stronger. You can reduce the amount of violence in the school quite a bit and still have kids feeling very unsafe. For instance, you can have a lot of security guards, and they will reduce violence, but it may not help the kids feel safer. Instead, you could be making the school like a prison, feeling basically unsafe.

The best approaches are non-adversarial between the different groups in the school. One very successful strategy came from teachers who were able to provide safety in the hallways without the students even knowing it. Instead of reprimanding and suspending students who violated rules they decided to stand in the hallway and greet as many children as they could, addressing each student by their first name. With this technique they had a tremendous reduction in school fights in the hallways. This is an example of a violence reduction intervention that made students feel more cared for, safer, and was not authoritarian.

"Students and teachers feel a kind of a relief when you’re talking about places and times, rather than people. Talking about improving locations helps build community and it helps teachers talk to children about safety without stigma directed at individuals or groups in the school. Parents can approach teacher groups and ask them 'What can we do about routes to and from school,' as opposed to 'What do we do about the bullies?'”

Reducing danger and keeping a place feeling safe is an important distinction for educators to make. We’ve had schools where the danger levels are equal or higher after the safety program. That’s why the data is so important. Interestingly, when this has happened, many teachers and students report feeling safer, perhaps because they feel “something” is being done. Because they were able to distinguish the safety “feel good” features of the program from the actual victimization rates, they were eventually able to bring this data back to the school, debate it, and with time, add components that also reduced the number of fights in their school. This way they achieved both goals of lower number of victims or fights and the school community feeling safer.

Whatever the school comes up with, it has to flow easily within the order of the school schedule and day. If it is seen as a huge burden, the likelihood of it continuing after funds dry up are almost zero.

TCLA: How do you propose schools actually conduct surveys?

RA: What we use in our surveys are maps of the school sites where we can identify the different territories where violence occurs. We ask the students to find the places that are “unowned” or dangerous in and around the schools. Why? Because students have a lot to say about those spaces. Students live and experience these spaces and they can articulate what is making those areas unsafe. Kids can tell you if they feel comfortable in the hallway, when, or why. It’s much more difficult for them to answer the question, “Do you feel connected to or safe in your school?” Asking about specific sub-spaces, specific times during the day, and specific school activities is much more helpful than asking about the school in general. Asking about a whole school is a much harder question for even adults to answer. Mapping areas with students and teachers really helps generate solutions to the problems. The areas that tend to be “unowned” tend to be the places that are the most unsafe. We’re very careful that the mapping doesn’t target people but places and times. Students and teachers feel a kind of a relief when you’re talking about places and times, rather than people. Talking about improving locations helps build community and it helps teachers talk to children about safety without stigma directed at individuals or groups in the school. Parents can approach teacher groups and ask them “What can we do about routes to and from school,” as opposed to “What do we do about the bullies?”

^tcla

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