How schools stop teen violence

Recent shootings have prompted districts nationwide to try new programs, and a template for success is emerging.

Across the nation, communities are redoubling their efforts to prevent teen violence - much of it in the year since the shootings in Littleton, Colo.

While tragedies such as Columbine are what often dominate the headlines, experts say a growing number of programs from Florida to Oregon are starting to prove effective in stemming youth violence.

The initiatives vary widely: from simple efforts to reward good behavior with gold-star-like stickers to more aggressive psychological counseling programs. Not surprisingly, the popularity of the initiatives varies too: Some have dramatically reduced violent incidents in schools and been embraced by teachers and parents alike. Others have proven costly for districts and raise questions of too much intrusion into family lives.

But beneath all the experimentation, researchers say they are now starting to identify common elements that make programs work. "Across the country, in every state, there are real pockets of excellence, real pockets of hope," says David Osher of the American Institutes for Research, a behavioral science group based here that has become something of a national clearinghouse of success stories.

In drawing up model initiatives for communities, he and other social scientists have come to one deceptively simple conclusion: By taking preventive measures early on, communities can head off tragedies down the road.

This week, President Clinton and the first lady host a White House conference on teens, aimed at exploring some of those early steps. The meeting will include parents, community leaders, and teenagers themselves.

Amid all the attention, the Monitor looked at case studies of several schools with impressive violence-reduction records.

Stop and think

In stopping violence in America's schools, a red sticker in elementary school can be more effective than metal detectors and security guards in high school.

That is, if it's a "Stop and Think" sticker, awarded to students who show exceptionally good behavior at Cleveland Elementary School in Tampa, Fla.

Since 1993, the school has adopted a general approach toward teaching its students - many of whom come from broken homes - how to listen, resolve conflict without fighting, deal with losing, wait one's turn, and otherwise interact with others effectively.

The 20 minutes a day spent learning social skills, along with those prized red stickers to reward students who take the lessons particularly to heart, have reaped big rewards, says veteran second-grade teacher Kimberly Howery. "When they come to a situation, whether it's someone talking to you when the teacher's talking or calling you a name, they stop and think and make a good choice or a bad choice."

But do lessons in sportsmanship and dealing with embarrassment really help stop student misbehavior? At Cleveland, it seems so. According to Principal Phyllis Rodriguez, in 1992-93, just before the program started, there were 358 disciplinary referrals at the school. In 1995-96, there were 85.

Bigger rewards may come when these students are in middle school and high school.

"We have a pretty rough population. Most are from a nearby housing project and are from single-parent homes, and for many of them these things are not taught at home," says Ms. Rodriguez. Hence, she argues, it is important to instill these behaviors early so that they will not turn to violence to settle arguments later.

Moreover, the children enjoy the lessons, says Ms. Howery. "They get excited about it and tell the class if they used a skill over the weekend. It's really made a difference in our school."

Response to warning signs

But broad-based efforts to reduce school violence like that at Cleveland Elementary are only part of the answer, say experts. Also important is dealing effectively with kids who send out warning signs by misbehaving. This means doing more than assigning detention and hoping problems will solve themselves.

"Administrators and teachers have a lot to deal with on a daily basis, so it's easy to neglect or ignore subtle hints or behaviors and deal just with major things like a fight," says Ron Echandia, the principal at Kennedy Middle School in Eugene, Ore.

But, he argues, that's precisely the wrong approach.

In the past five years, his school has taken a more aggressive stance toward students who misbehave, even when the offenses aren't that severe.

For example, he says that recently, several girls had an argument and one of them shoved another. Under the old way of doing things, the shover would have met briefly with a vice principal and either been suspended or sent back to class.

But instead, they had all the girls meet with counselors. They also asked the shover's teachers if her behavior had changed recently - and they said it had. So Mr. Echandia called her home, and found that there had been some domestic turmoil recently.

"Now, the father is coming in, and we have counselors involved, and the father is receptive to what we've proposed. I think our chances of success with this girl are high," he says.

While some may see the school's approach as overreacting - or meddling in a family's private affairs - the results of this careful attention to low-level misbehavior are striking. In the 1996-97 school year, the school had 1,200 disciplinary referrals. Last school year, there were 500. Similarly, in 1996-97 there were 15 cases of weapons brought on campus. Last year, there was one.

This work, school officials hope, will stop students who show signs of violent inclinations from veering further down that path. "There's a big change when they enter high school," says Echandia. "It's better to intervene at the middle school level. You have a better chance of success."

Severely troubled kids

But what do you do with kids whose behavior is so explosive that their next stop is a juvenile correctional facility?

In most cases, special-education teachers work with them in public schools. Besides being less costly, that approach keeps them in the mainstream - and research shows segregation doesn't necessarily help severely troubled kids.

But in greater Cleveland, when individual cases are too much for the public schools, there's PEP.

That stands for Positive Education Program, a network of six off-site day centers for kids 6 to 18. Held up by some as a national model, PEP gives intense attention to young people from diverse racial and economic backgrounds, putting them in classes of 10, with two teachers per class.

Their record is enviable. The program takes in 150 to 200 children each year, but behavior improves to such a degree that one-third eventually return to mainstream life. Another third go back to public school but still require a lot of support. A recent study showed that, two years out of the program, half the kids were staying out of trouble.

With its roots in the 1960s, the philosophy at PEP involves the whole community in the "reeducation" of the child. Each participant gets a case worker who keeps in touch with the child's parents, doctor, social worker, church youth worker, and probation officer.

Students get sent home with daily "passports" reporting to parents what went well, and maybe not so well. These kids also work in the community, teaching literacy to adults; volunteering with the elderly; clearing trails in parks.

"We place kids in situations where their good side shines. For the first time in their lives, they are not the bad kid," says PEP director Frank Fecser.

Mr. Fecser admits his program "is costly, no question." In fact, he spends about $12 million to $18 million a year to serve approximately 540 kids. But, he points out, his day program is far less expensive than residential programs, and than similar day programs in other states.

At the centers, academic and emotional education are combined. Teacher Carole Geraci concentrates on reading and math, but also works on social skills with her students. They practice sitting still, learning how to ignore taunts, and even how to apologize. Then, when real life situations come up, "it's almost automatic," she says proudly.

Every day before going home, students are required to say something positive about themselves, and about someone else. And Ms. Geraci lays on the praise when they behave well, even if it's as minor as going quietly to the sink to wash their hands.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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