Toward Peaceful Schools

Looking back on the school year just ending, many Americans will recall, sadly, a series of deadly shootings. Places like Jonesboro, Ark., and Springfield, Ore., are etched in memory.

Looking ahead to the fall, educators, parents, students, and community leaders ask: How can we keep it from happening again?

Many school districts have introduced metal detectors and search procedures. Uniformed police or security guards are becoming more common in halls and schoolyards. Administrators, teachers, and in some cases fellow students are alert to threats of violence that could turn into actual violence. Expulsions often follow such threats.

The need for these measures in many areas is hard to refute. Nationwide, just over 6,000 students were expelled last year for bringing guns to school, according to the Department of Education. The days when such problems were thought to be limited to depressed, inner-city districts are gone. Suburban and rural towns - like Springfield and Jonesboro - have seen some of the worst violence.

But crackdown measures have limitations. They are sometimes indiscriminate - summarily expelling, for instance, otherwise well-behaved kids for relatively minor infractions. They can also build an us-against-them mentality in schools, though diligent efforts to include students in antiviolence campaigns lessen such feelings.

Most important, surveillance and punishment don't address motives and attitudes that underlie violence. In some cases, anger and resentment are easily detected. Then counseling can help, especially if it involves teamwork among students, their families, and school staff. Often, however, such feelings are hidden, and violent behavior is unexpected.

In a recent Monitor article on school violence, a middle-school principal summed up what it takes to work with youngsters and turn them around: "You have to let them know they count. And you can't say, 'I don't have time for you now.'"

That simple advice works across the board - for parents, teachers, counselors, religious leaders, and even other teens.

Acting on it takes unselfishness, a genuine concern for others. Such elements of thought are critically needed to counteract the alienation and anger all too common today - and all too often glorified on screens and CDs.

Police methods and tough rules have their place. But the crucial changes will be less visible, occurring in the thinking of both students and the adults responsible for guiding and protecting them.

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