BOSTON — A DOZEN kids shuffle and clatter their way into John Christoforo's classroom. They're speaking English and Spanish, joking loudly with each other. Mr. Cristoforo issues a stern ``sientese!'' (sit down!) Most comply.
One youngster wanders up to the teacher's desk for a little banter about when lunch will be ready. Mr. Christoforo, a veteran of 30 years in Boston's classrooms, humors him for a while, then cuts it off. ``He's typical,'' he says as the student, wearing the loose-fitting clothes universal among US teens, retreats to a desk. ``This is one who'll do anything for attention.''
But little else about this classroom is typical. It's located in the Barron Assessment Counseling Center, where students in Boston's public education system end up if they're caught with weapons on school grounds.
Christoforo's job is to make sure the students here keep up their school work. He teaches nearly every subject, short of advanced math. The kids also receive daily counseling in violence prevention, and parents are brought into the consultation process, too. Students usually stay at the center no longer than two weeks, though some who present unusual discipline problems may have to remain until the end of a school year. Students are searched each morning as they enter. It's a much stricter environment than the average school, but it's not jail either.
This facility is how Boston deals with a problem shared by communities all over the United States. Researchers estimate that 90,000 to 100,000 students bring guns to US schools daily. The number with knives is much larger.
The Barron Center was set up after the 1986-87 school year, when there was a sudden increase in the number of weapons taken from students. The annual count of guns seized in Boston's schools reached a high of 44 a few years ago, says Franklin Tucker, a longtime Boston educator who founded the center. That number has now dropped to around 16 a year.
Mr. Tucker regularly visits other cities to advise about setting up similar centers. ``This is a war zone we're dealing with, and it's everywhere,'' he says.
Memphis, for example, has a program called ``Weapons Watch.'' It uses the community's anticrime hot line to give students an anonymous way of telling authorities about guns and other weapons carried by their peers or hidden in lockers. ``We feel it has been enormously successful,'' says Gerri Nichol, the Memphis public schools' mental health director. ``Between last November and a month ago, 75 weapons were confiscated, one-third of them guns.'' In Memphis, the young weapons offenders are arrested and taken to juvenile court.
Houston's schools employ a variety of ways to get at the weapons problem, according to a spokeswoman for the city's school district. There are alternative schools for particularly troublesome kids. Some schools have metal detectors, and some have parent-volunteers who monitor the halls.
Miami has alternative schools for students expelled for weapons and other violations, and they're ``overenrolled,'' says Bill Harris, supervisor of safety and driver's education for Dade County schools. If youngsters show ``very good behavior,'' they may be let back in their own schools at the beginning of the next school year.
Schools in Minnesota have developed a step-by-step process from expulsion to reinstatement. A series of conferences involves parents, psychologists, school officials - and police-liaison officers who are often based right in schools. The point, says Carolyn McLeod, a mediator with the Citizen's Council in Minneapolis, is to make kids ``own'' what they've done and recognize the harm it has caused.
But dealing with students who have already armed themselves is only one slice of a larger problem, says Linda Lantieri, director of the National Center for Resolving Conflicts Creatively, a nonprofit group that helps school districts set up violence-prevention programs both in New York City, its home base, and nationally.
``We need to put into place the kinds of things that can help kids before they feel they have to carry a weapon,'' says Ms. Lantieri, a former teacher, vice-principal, and central-office administrator in New York's schools. Her organization tries to infuse conflict-resolution and mediation techniques into the ``fabric'' of the schools it works with, she says, so that everyone - principals to students - understand techniques for settling disputes nonviolently.
That doesn't mean traditional codes of discipline are tossed out, Lantieri says. In her view, clearly enforced rules and conflict resolution go hand in hand. If a student is caught with a weapon, ``we're certainly not going to negotiate it,'' she says.
Hers is one of many organizations involved in bringing mediation and conflict resolution programs to schools around the country. Others include the Children's Creative Response to Violence Program, based in Nyack, New York; San Francisco's Community Board Program; the National Association for Mediation in Education, in Amherst, Mass.; and the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence in Washington.
Irene Cooper-Basch, director of communicaton for the Community Board, estimates there are 5,000 peer mediation programs in the US teaching kids the skills needed to defuse potentially violent situations. ``You have to start young - build the skills at a young age,'' she says.