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Students lead the charge against violence

Banding together in fast-growing clubs, they keep arguments from escalating

By Patrik Jonsson Special to The Christian Science Monitor / April 3, 2001


Sheriff's deputy Tim Brabble has a surefire way to connect with his young charges at Chowan Middle School in Edenton, N.C. It's called the bear hug.

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To offset his cop's crewcut and buff build, Mr. Brabble dresses casual as he walks his hallway beat, talking, joking, and giving big, full-body hugs where necessary - even to burly footballers.

Try as he might, though, he knows he can't be everyone's good buddy. In fact, hugs don't always do the trick.

"There are 620 students at the school and there's only one of me," says Brabble, just a few days after one of his counterparts, a school-based police officer in San Diego, Calif., disarmed a school shooter who was a senior.

So in response to a rash of violence in American schools, he did what more and more adults are doing: He enlisted students not just as hallway watchmen, but actual problem-solvers and preachers of positive vibe.

From the Assets Middle School in Honolulu, Hawaii, to Cape May (N.J.) Middle School, teachers and principals are tapping student ingenuity, idealism, and brashness to reduce tensions and even inform officials about brawls that are brewing. Indeed, a new breed of front-line student activists is reshaping the debate over how to help maladjusted peers.

Moreover, preliminary studies and anecdotal evidence show that these student activists are making a difference.

"Incidents of violence are dropping at schools that have positive safe-school planning going on," says Carleen Wray, assistant director of the Center for the Prevention of Violence here in Raleigh.

Many schools are still relying on "get-tough" programs that popped up in the 1990s to target potential troublemakers. But educators increasingly acknowledge that suspension policies and campus officers may not be enough - and that students often know more than they let on about classmates who turn violent.

Based in Raleigh, Students Against Violence Everywhere (SAVE) has become a major player in the antiviolence movement, spreading from the Piedmont like wildfire since the 1999 Columbine shootings. SAVE has grown to 680 chapters in 34 states today, from seven chapters around Charlotte, N.C., in 1993. Nearly 80,000 kids are involved, and student committees help create the materials that are distributed to chapters.

"More and more students, now in the wake of the San Diego shootings, are willing to cross the threshold and break that code of silence," says Ron Stephens of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. "They ultimately understand that it's for the good of the perpetrator, and for their own safety."

Educators at Northern High School in Durham, N.C., have found the responsiveness they're looking for in Roba Ghanayem, Wes Blalock, Lindsay Whitaker, and Lisa Bland, officers of the school's eight-year-old SAVE club. The upperclassmen aren't worried about being pegged as geeks or do-gooders. They take their charge seriously, but also try to make club membership fun.

Adults are often impressed with their courage. Lisa, for one, uses her quiet demeanor to glean rumors from her classmates. At the first sign of trouble, she informs the school resource officer.

"I don't care," she says confidently. "If someone tells me something's going to happen, they know I'm going to go right to the school officer and tell him about it. In fact, that's usually why they tell me, so they won't get beat up for it."