Community Voices

Stemming the roots of violence in our schools

According to Bruce Perry, MD, a pediatric brain development specialist, in his discussion, Why Does Violence Happen?, crime, mental health, education, and social science experts have all been trying to understand the pathways to school violence. The most common and poignant observation remains that human beings, unlike other species, are pervasively aggressive, violent and murderous to each other. The major predators of humans are other humans.

Secondly, all violence is not the same. Some violence is due to impulsive behavior, some due to the disinhibition by drugs or alcohol, some due to serious mental illness, some to hate, revenge, or retribution. So to explain the basis for killing encompasses a complex combination of circumstances - almost impossible to discern. Not all humans kill. And some societies are more violent than others.

What are the unique characteristics cultivated by the last few generations that have impacted the recent wave of violence in the US? What do we know about the conditions that promote violence? Are there observations across cultures and time that link to the emergence of violence? Can we do anything about it?

Dr Perry offers these insights:

As we become desensitized to death and killing, violence increases. We will watch 200,000 graphic violent acts on TV by age 18. Too many of us have become desensitized to violent acts, not realizing the true effects of a bullet passing through a human body. In one situation involving an aggressive and disruptive 9 year old boy, he was noted to have said while watching TV - “That’s so cool. Look at his head explode”. In the United States, we have been spared the horrors of war and plague in our land, yet we self-expose ourselves to remarkable violence.

Solution: Plain and simple, don’t watch so much violence. Make sure your kids see less violence. You may be able to understand something is “just TV or film,” but children do not. Have your kids learn something about the real impact of violence. Listen to the mother of a murdered child. Find a classmate who has lost a parent or sibling to violence — they can tell you what violence is really like. Try to see what a bullet really does. A little research can teach your child more about violence than a lifetime of TV or movies.

As we become more detached from each other and from common unifying beliefs, violence increases. Without being connected to others, we care less about their welfare. When we share common bonds with others, we are less likely to be aggressive or violent towards them. When individuals become isolated from and/or marginalized by those around them, violence increases. After seeing the crying parents of the girl he had beaten, strangled, and stabbed to death, an 18-year-old murderer muttered, “I don’t know why they’re crying — I’m the one going to jail.”

Solution: Make sure your kids are part of something — at school or outside. Spend time with friends, in structured and non-structured activities. Talk, listen, laugh and be together. Time with friends, family, teammates, and classmates promote healthy social or emotional relationships. Teach kids how to identify isolated or marginalized kids — they know who they are. Teach them how to reach out and include them. Look them in the eyes; talk to them between class; sit with them at lunch.

When we allow hate to make us view groups of people as different or less than human, violence increases . Hateful beliefs such as racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny allow whole groups to be dehumanized. The more any group is misunderstood, the more the unknown can fuel fear and misunderstanding. In high schools, this can happen when cliques form — jocks, preps, geeks. Fear and misunderstanding can lead to hateful words and violent behaviors.

Solution: Teach kids to be intolerant of intolerance. Have them learn more about other religions, cultures, and worldviews and to be wary of individuals with hateful beliefs. Teach kids to prevent degrading, humiliating, or bullying behaviors and not to be afraid to call someone on a hateful or degrading comment about another group, religion, or culture. These hateful beliefs are like a cancer; they can spread, invade, and destroy. If we treat each other with respect, we will be enriched by each other’s beliefs rather than diminished.

When we are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, violence increases. Alcohol makes all people stupid and some people violent. A huge percentage of impulsive violence takes place under the influence of alcohol or other drugs..

Solution: Kids and drugs never amount to anything good - whatever your strategy, try and keep your kids away from alcohol and drugs. And if they are drinking, drink responsibly, with people they know and trust, in places that are safe. Stay out of cars. Don’t ever pressure someone else to drink or use. Be prepared to live with the consequences of your choice. Hundreds of youth die each year due to the influence of alcohol or other drugs.

Over time, we have become more efficient and practiced at killing behaviors. Five thousand years ago, a drunk, isolated, hateful person could try to kill, but would be limited by his own strength. There were no handguns, no automatic weapons, and no explosives, so he might kill one or two. Today, in a single fit of rage and hate, one person with an automatic weapon can kill dozens of people. One hateful person can bomb a building and kill hundreds. We have more available and efficient means to kill.

And we are practicing killing in the games we play — paintball, video games, and simulated war games — we are becoming practiced in the behaviors required to kill.

Solution: Decrease the amount of time spent playing violent video games or practicing lethal behaviors. If you see younger children “playing” at killing, see if you can help them find other ways to channel their energies. Go outside and interact with nature. Ride a bike. Go swimming.

What Schools are doing writers say that it is important that students become involved in their own safety through discussions and participation in school safety activities. Students should understand their role and behavioral expectations related to preventing and reporting rumors and threats of violence, as well as cell phone and text messaging use, especially during an emergency.

Knowing the students and knowing them well is imperative. School personnel are encouraged to develop positive relationships with all students. The good news is that school and police officials are getting much better at predicting student behavior and preventing high-profile tragedies. The bad news is that no one will never be 100% successful because it involves human behavior. Adult behavior is hard to predict; youth behavior is even more difficult. By nature, adolescent behavior is experimental and fluctuating.

Schools need to make cognitive not emotional responses to threats. While school administrators may be emotionally tempted to quickly evacuate a school or close down schools, this may not be the most appropriate action, especially if the credibility of the threat is in question. Dr. Scott Poland, Professor of Psychological Studies and expert in school violence and school psychology, says that the continuity of the educational process maintains “normalcy” for children.

Teachers need to maintain vigilance with regard to student use of cell phones and texting in classrooms and school common areas. Procedures should be in place for teachers to notify school administrators and security personnel of misuse and abuse.

Maintain proactive communication with parents about how rumors, threats and other school violence concern will be addressed. Parents and others in the school community must be told that school officials have plans in place to respond to rumors, investigate them, administer disciplinary consequences.

Consider how your security and preparedness technology can be used in times of rumors and threats. Can your surveillance cameras be used to monitor hallways to help identify persons going in and out of restrooms where threats have been written on bathroom walls? One school reportedly used their cameras to identify students in the hallways who were using cell phones to record fights in the hallways. After dealing with the actual fight incident, administrators went back to the cameras and followed up with disciplinary action against those recording the fights, against school rules banning cell phones in school.

What parents can do

· Explain consequences. Even when the presence of blood is lacking, parents need to explain the true physical consequences of violence. Point out how unrealistic it is for people to get away with the kind of mayhem modeled in media.

· Teach conflict resolution. Kids know that clocking someone on the head isn’t the way to solve a disagreement, but verbal cruelty is also violent. Teach kids how to disengage, use their words and stand up for themselves without throwing a punch.

· Use age appropriate judgment:

Kids ages 2-4 often see cartoon violence. But keep them away from anything that shows physical aggression as a means of conflict resolution, because they’ll imitate what they see.

For 5- to 7-year-olds, cartoon rough-and-tumble, slapstick and fantasy violence are OK, but violence that would reasonably result in death or serious injury is too scary.

8- to 10-year-olds can handle action-hero sword fighting or gunplay as long as there’s no gore. Violence should have consequences.

For 11- to 12-year-old tweens, historical action is OK, including battles, fantasy clashes and duels. But close-ups of gore or graphic violence aren’t recommended.

Kids ages 13-17 can and will see high-tech violence, accidents with disfigurement, or death, anger and gang fighting. Point out that the violence portrayed is hurtful and causes suffering. And limit time exposure to violence, especially in video games.

No M-rated games for kids younger than 16 or 17. Sure, the kid down the street has the latest cop-killer game. But these games are ultra-violent and often sexually violent. That’s not good for developing brains and social development.

Don’t let kids immerse themselves in violent content. There is much more to life than video games. Go outside and play. Interact with nature. The more time spent with violent content, the greater its impact and influence.

Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.