The Impact Of Violence On Public Education

In America’s major cities, public school buildings are regularly protected by detachments of school “police.” In New York City, the school security personnel are in fact employed and trained by the New York City Police Department’s School Safety Division under the command of an Assistant Chief Inspector. In Brooklyn, the District Attorney has set aside scarce resources to establish the School Advocacy Bureau, which is dedicated to dealing with the issue of school crime, and finding ways to work with the New York City Department of Education to combat school violence.

In the view of many civic leaders around the nation, education is the most challenging problem facing their communities; and the impact of crime and violence on their ability to provide an adequate public school education is taking a heavy toll on the resources of those communities. The fact that students and school staff are often the targets of violence, and that precious educational time is too often dedicated to just maintaining order, is a serious issue that has gone without a remedy for too long. The result has been the under-education of some of our school children, especially in school districts where the rate of crime and disorderliness is higher than in other districts within the same state or region. (Reference: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, The Conditions of Education 2003, NCES 2003-067, Washington, D.C.:U.S. Government Printing Office, 2003)

Trying to achieve universally high performance from all of our nation’s public schools has bedeviled educators for decades and has yielded little success. The differences in the overall academic performance of schools and school children can be traced to a multitude of variables, including class size, special education programs, the English language ability of students, teacher training, and money, to name just a few. But whatever the reasons for the poor academic performance of so many of our public school kids on test measures of all kinds, we all agree that a solid education is essential for their future success and that of our nation.

In overcoming sanctioned segregation of public school children in this country in 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren stated:

“…education is perhaps the most important function of state and local Governments…it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”
— Brown v. Board of Education 347 U.S.483,493 (1954)

The legal significance of Justice Warren’s words was directed at the requirement that once the state undertakes to provide public education, access to it becomes a right that must be provided on an equal basis for all those eligible for it. In 1954, the Supreme Court was addressing the issue of racial segregation and the inequality in education that was found to be inherent in it. The court concluded that children educated in segregated classrooms received an education that was inferior to those in integrated settings. Since that time, this nation has continued to try to integrate its schools by exploring a number of remedies, including busing and school choice programs, to name just two.

That effort continues because in large and mid-sized cities there remain a disproportionate number of minority students as compared with suburban and rural schools. In New York, 80 percent of the students in the state’s large and mid-sized cities are minority, compared with 6 percent in suburban and rural areas. In Pennsylvania the ratio is 65 percent to 4 percent, and in Washington D.C., 96 percent of the total school population is minority.

Studies available from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics indicate that a number of other characteristics found in the nation’s predominately minority urban schools play a role in denying quality education to the students attending them (despite often higher-per-capita expenditures for their education) than in schools with higher achievement levels. Lower levels of parent participation, limited English proficiency, classroom overcrowding, fewer highly qualified teachers, high absenteeism of both teachers and students, and the high percentage of time spent by classroom teachers on discipline help to round out the picture of under-performing schools. (Supra: The Condition of Education 2003)

In an effort to overcome some of the obstacles in the path of a quality education often found in urban schools, school districts have recognized the need to devote substantial resources to the job. Efforts are being made to bring in modern teaching techniques employing technological advances in both the educating of students and the training of teachers. Efforts have been made to expand school choice options to better fit student needs. Teacher recruitment programs have been launched to recruit more teachers with diverse experience and backgrounds. And programs to develop a broader and stronger role for parents in the educational programs affecting their children have been undertaken.

Yet, despite all of these efforts, if (as was promised by the Supreme Court in Brown) “education is a right that must be made available to all on equal terms” is to be achieved, then we still have a great deal of work ahead of us on the state level. One of the key areas much in need of serious attention is that of school violence and its impact on the ability to provide an effective teaching environment. Overall, according to some statistics, teachers in urban schools on all levels may be spending on average as much as 20 percent of their time in disciplining students — time sorely needed for teaching.

Statistics coming from America’s schools indicate that, despite the fact that segregated schools as an educational policy has been eliminated for almost 50 years in America, segregated schools remain de facto and the unequal educational opportunities that they are characterized by remain as well. The fact that these predominantly minority schools are located in low socio-economic neighborhoods in urban areas; are large, overcrowded, and under-staffed; and suffer from a lack of resources necessary to overcome these obstacles is statistically consistent with high violence rates. This is compared to schools on the fringe of urban areas or in the suburbs that are not characterized by the same disadvantages. We also know that the every educational authority as well as the Supreme Court of the United States has recognized that schools have a duty to educate students in a safe and orderly environment.

( See: Mitchell Yell, Michael E. Rozalski, Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, vol.8, issue 3, 2000
Tinker v Des Moines, 393 U.S.503(1969
New Jersey v T.L.O. , 469U.S.325(1985)
Bethel School District v Fraser, 478U.S.675(1986)
District v Acton 515U.S.646(1995) )

States Respond With Legislation
In response to the duty to provide safe schools in which a positive learning environment can be established, many states have passed “safe” school legislation establishing programs and funding for local school districts to implement. For instance, Illinois enacted its “Safe to Learn” initiative and provided funding for four categories, including teacher/staff training. New York’s legislature has passed its “Project SAVE” (Safe Schools Against Violence in Education Act, 2001), which similarly provides funding for a wide variety of programs including mandated training in violence prevention for teachers. Florida, Missouri, and many others have also attempted to deal with the duty to provide safe schools for students and educational personnel in recognition of the fact that, while our large cities may have a greater incidence of school violence, the most infamous crimes against school children have occurred in the nation’s suburbs, such as the Columbine tragedy in Colorado and the school shooting in Springfield, Oregon, both of which stunned the nation.

In our biggest cities, however, millions of school children are receiving an unequal education in large measure because of the disruption and turmoil associated with the higher incidence of crime and violence to be found in their schools. The Supreme Court of the United States has repeatedly reminded our states of the need to address the issue of safe schools, and has concluded that without a safe learning environment our children continue to suffer educationally and thereby developmentally. (See: New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985). If we as a nation cannot overcome the fact that our children continue to be educated in racially divided schools, then we must deal with the inequality in education to be found in these schools.

Our states and their school districts have set about establishing a variety of school security programs designed to both limit school violence and to react to it after it occurs. But uniformed security personnel, gates, locks and alarms do little to assist the classroom teacher to maintain order in the very places where learning is supposed to be going on. Elaborate evacuation plans and crisis intervention programs, though essential in responding to violence or the threat of violence, do little to help the teacher or administrator avoid or deter violence before it occurs, or to quickly terminate it before serious injury or even death visits our school children or their teachers.

Thus far, anti-violence programs for our schools have focused on police action and response protocols, with little focus on prevention. The first line of defense in the battle against violence in education is manned daily by our educational professionals and school staff personnel, who are first to see the potential for a violent encounter and the first to be called upon to protect life, limb, and property. A program to prepare educators to deal with the duty to establish a safe school environment requires immediate implementation and should become part of the required teacher training program in our schools as well as play a significant role in the continuing teacher training requirements in place across the country. Preparing educators to serve in the program to eradicate school violence is not optional; it is a duty required by law and one that, if we fail to observe it, results in the most serious of consequences.

This year in America, school violence has had a running start, inflicting death on 20 school children in and around public schools in all regions of the nation. This statistic represents a dramatic change, and has already eclipsed that for all of last year. We must act quickly to stem that tide and the opportunity to do so is available.

Educators from Alaska to Florida, and from coast to coast, have already received security awareness and response training. School districts in five states have already begun to offer continuing teacher education credits for this training, with several more in the process. There is no acceptable reason to fail to train our public school educators to deal with the violence crisis in education plaguing us when it can be accomplished quickly and effectively in every school district in America.

As parents and educators continue to seek recourse from our courts against school districts that have failed to implement needed anti-violence programs; as teachers continue to leave their jobs due to the threat of violence in the districts that need them the most; and as our children continue to suffer educationally, socially, and emotionally from the fear of crime and their exposure to it; we cannot afford to delay in helping our educators to effectively respond to the problem of school violence when the opportunity to help them is available.

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