Better approach to school violence

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

To the editors:

There is no quick fix to deadly youth violence.

Typical criminal justice approaches in the schools are going to fall short. Playing the ‘blame game’ and pinning it on the schools or the lack of police or even inadequate parenting is of little use. Taking some ownership of the problem is essential. The School District should start thinking less defensively and focus on the social/learning climates within schools.

As a student teacher at two high schools last fall, I saw the limits of the District’s muscular approach. Barrages of threats, sanctions, and special assemblies had little impact on kids who build their identity around hanging tough and getting by. Research says violence is reduced and academics improve when students have a real voice.

There are alternatives to violent or disruptive confrontations with authority or between students. But they require systematic and sustained introduction that focuses on reflecting on and taking ownership of one’s behavior. High-quality programs of conflict resolution, peer mediation and character education can make a difference. Yet no one program is the answer. School cultures need to be reinvented by those in them – teachers, students and staff – as opposed to "solutions" imposed by downtown. In addition, high schools need major downsizing if kids there are going to feel and behave as if they belong – the argument Youth United for Change and Philadelphia Student Union have been making

It’s about more than keeping violence out of schools and keeping surrounding streets safe. It’s about making the schools anchors of support, which contribute to better neighborhoods and provide young lives with hope. Self-respect and respect for authority are vital, but "intelligence" gathering and surveillance cameras are unlikely to get us there.

Stephen J. Strahs
Melrose Park