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Junior-high pupils, officials find ways to defuse school violence. Federal project in three school districts shows discipline improves as students themselves look for solutions

By Lucia MouatStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 22, 1985

Rockford, Ill.

``You started it -- you pushed me.'' ``You put your books down first -- you wanted to fight.''

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Two boys sit well apart from each other, exchanging accusations in the John F. Kennedy Middle School office. Soon they are telling their story to Assistant Principal Sylvia Goff, who makes each listen to the other's version and decides the blame is equal. Both students get a three-day suspension from school as a penalty.

Within minutes this administrator is on the phone on another case, urging that a school-bus driver see to it that two students involved in a fracas the day before are seated as far apart as possible on the ride home that afternoon.

``I do miss teaching,'' says Mrs. Goff, who describes her job, like that of most deputy school-building administrators as ``100 percent discipline.''

As in many junior high schools, fighting has long been this school's major discipline problem. But, unlike many, Kennedy has been making a concerted effort to control and reduce it, with some success.

Kennedy has implemented a data-gathering system that enables school administrators to distinguish between incidents that violate school rules, those calling for discipline, and those requiring police involvement.

The Rockford school district (of which Kennedy is a part) and the school systems of Jacksonville, Fla., and Anaheim, Calif., are part of the National School Crime and Student Misbehavior Project. The project is jointly funded by the Department of Education and the Department of Justice.

Although none of the three has an unusually difficult discipline problem. Each was seen to have good potential for testing new strategies.

Chief technical architect of the research effort is Robert J. Rubel, author of ``Violence and Crime in the Schools'' and director of the Texas-based National Alliance for Safe Schools.

Dr. Rubel has designed a statistical profile for the schools focusing on where, when, what, and how serious aspects of incidents occur, rather than on who was involved. ``Dealing with who did it is a cop problem,'' he says. ``This is pure crime analysis.''

By pinpointing locations where most fighting occurs, administrators can learn where more supervision or other attention is needed. In one Jacksonville school, administrators discovered that persistent trouble in a locker area had to do with the way lockers were placed -- at right angles to rather than lining the wall. The lockers have since been rearranged.

Dr. Rubel hopes the schools will not only develop more effective strategies to deal with discipline problems, but that broad support networks also will be developed. The networks would be made up of teams of students, parents, custodians, and teachers at each building. Combining cooperation with community agencies, the networks can keep criminal assault under control and add to the principal's ``leverage.''

``It's a new way of looking at an old problem,'' says George Aschenbrenner, assistant superintendent for secondary schools in Rockford. ``I think many of us had never really stopped to think that fighting is [not just] two kids duking it out, but that an assault is criminal activity and involves someone who doesn't want to participate.''