Programs to prevent violence before it starts

Schools across US offer a variety of conflict-resolution programs, but

In the aftermath of the shootout in Littleton, Colo., pundits have offered any number of suggestions for ways to keep America's public schools safe, everything from zero-tolerance rules for harassment to armed police officers in the hallways to mandatory metal detectors in every school.

Along with these highly visible tactics is a more subtle effort to stop violent behavior before it starts. Through dozens of programs in thousands of schools, students are learning the anger-management tools of modern psychology and the business-school negotiating tactics of corporate boardrooms. Some even dabble in Gandhi.

But while the various conflict-resolution programs differ in approach, they share a common attitude that school safety is the personal responsibility of not just teachers and principals, but of every student.

"Obviously, there's merit in the principle [of teaching conflict resolution], but the real test is how effective they are," says Alfred Blumstein, director of the National Consortium on Violence Research at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Most violence-prevention programs got their start in the 1980s and early '90s, when America's attention was riveted to the drug-driven crime wave affecting urban areas. Even today, with youth violence dropping rapidly, it is still the second leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 15 and 24, and the leading cause of death for African-Americans in that age group. But in recent years, violence-prevention courses have been cropping up in the suburbs and farm towns that have long been considered "safe," as educators realize that youth violence knows no class, color, or boundary.

With increasing levels of antisocial behavior among younger children, educators are now focusing their attention on primary-school children, at times teaching them social skills that their parents may not have taught them.

"The most important thing is starting young," says Peggy Ketterer, senior program developer at the Committee for Children in Seattle, which offers the Second Step curriculum in thousands of schools nationwide. "We start in primary school, teaching about anger and their ability to empathize with other kids. By the time they reach high school, if they haven't learned that, they're loose cannons."

Second Step teaches a broad range of social skills, including empathy, impulse control, problem solving, and anger management. An independent study found that Second Step tends to reduce physical aggression by 29 percent in an average school year, while aggressive incidents in another group of schools increased by 41 percent.

Margaret Dolan, an elementary school principal in Hazelwood, Mo., says the key to stopping fights at her school is to teach children simple manners.

"These are skills we learned in preschool at the supper table, where parents used to teach kids to say 'please,' [and] 'thank you,' " says Dr. Dolan, principal of McNair Elementary School and founder of a program called Fight-Free Schools.

At McNair, teachers train kids to write down their feelings instead of fighting, and fly special flags on the flagpole for every fight-free week. After the first year, fights dropped 94 percent, from 55 fights to three, and the school has maintained that low level since then. "It's very simple," says Dolan. "We need to talk to kids. There's no amount of money that's going to solve this problem."

Another program, called Responding in Peaceful and Positive Ways (RIPP) focuses on sixth-graders, teaching them four simple skills for avoiding violence: resolve, avoid, ignore, or defuse.

"Different situations require different strategies," says Aleta Meyer, an assistant professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and director of RIPP. "To teach kids to talk it out is simplistic. Sometimes that can turn into an argument that leads to a fight. That's why we teach them to avoid. Or they can defuse the situation with humor."

The RIPP program claims dramatic results, and points to a comparison of students in the Richmond public schools who had taken the RIPP curriculum with those who hadn't. According to an independent study, non-RIPP students were four times as likely to be caught with a weapon at school, nearly five times as likely to have received an in-school suspension, and 2.5 times as likely to have received a fight-related injury that required medical treatment.

Educators say the task of maintaining these lessons grows more difficult as children approach middle school. After all, it's then that most adolescents join cliques in a search for their identities. This is also the age when adolescents crave more control and self-responsibility, and a growing number of programs are attempting to turn these natural tendencies to a productive end.

"We're not only saying not to use violence, we're saying use negotiation to get what you want," says Jared Curhan, who founded the Project for Young Negotiators based in Cambridge, Mass. "This has the effect of making the kids always aware of what their goals are, so we find there is an improvement in academic ways as well."

Unlike peer mediation, which trains a select number of students to mediate school-yard disputes, the Project for Young Negotiators teaches negotiation to all students in a given school. It's being used by 400 teachers in 28 schools in the US, Canada, and Israel. At Brentwood North Middle School in New York, suspension rates dropped 50 percent for students in the first year of the program.

But not all criminologists are impressed by these numbers. Far more impressive is the 6.7 percent drop in young people arrested for murder over the past five years, a decrease that coincided with tough prosecution for illegal handgun purchases, along with community programs to get guns off streets. School programs to change student behavior are having only a marginal effect in reducing crime, some experts say.

"The drop in handgun homicides [is] due to a variety of efforts, primarily political aggressiveness in creating tough handgun laws, and community efforts to discourage handgun carrying," says Mr. Blumstein.

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