In Maximum Security: The Culture of Violence in Inner-City
Schools (1996, Chicago),(1) John Devine analyzes the violence
and disorder that afflict inner-city high schools as teachers
cede their traditional responsibility for student conduct
to school security specialists and their technology of surveillance.
Devine's understanding of school violence, derived from a
decade's work running a tutoring program in several of New
York City's most troubled high schools, leads him to criticize
both pedagogical theorists and some practitioners for ignoring
the reality of school violence. In the following excerpt,
he voices his misgivings about an increasingly popular approach
to school violence, the "conflict resolution" movement.
How to Get an Antiviolence Grant
What I have been referring to as a discourse of avoidance
regarding school violence is not the only discourse. One strand
of discourse currently featured in the educational literature--and
widely reported in the press and on TV--has been attempting
to address the topic directly. In 1993 the New York Times
reported on this trend under a headline that read, "Schools
Try to Tame Violent Pupils, One Punch and One Taunt at a Time."
The article relates how this novel approach concentrates on
teaching children peaceful alternatives to conflict within
a classroom setting. Federal agencies are now making millions
of dollars available for "conflict resolution" classes,
for creating "safe haven" rooms in schools, and
for "peer mediation" programs. Getting a federal
grant has become simple: just start your own conflict-resolution
program. "Conflict resolution" has become the buzz
word of the 1990s: gym teachers and ESL teachers are suddenly
being converted into conflict-resolution teachers, and community-based
agencies are coming into schools, each one marketing its own
unique curriculum and methodology for teaching nonviolence
to children and youth.
To reduce the sharp increases in violence, many psychologists
and public health specialists have recommended teaching children
and youth ways to handle their emotions more positively. The
foremost proponent of this approach is Deborah Prothrow-Stith.(2)
She, together with her coauthor, Michaele Weissman, writes
that her program is based on the assumption that "truthful
information about the risks of fighting could and would change
students' attitudes about fighting and, over time, their behavior"
(p. 161). Using the successful national campaign against smoking
as her model, she builds her program on the idea that "individuals
who understand the health risks confronting them are more
likely to make healthy decisions." Applied to the issue
of violence, Prothrow-Stith is convinced that teachers and
other professionals can work with adolescents "to help
them develop the cognitive capacity and moral reasoning power
to turn away from the danger on the streets" (p.18).
Once students understand clearly that violence is harmful
to their health, so the argument runs, they will surely abandon
it the way many smokers gave up smoking.
Citing Kohlberg's stages of moral reasoning, Prothrow-Stith
contends that if young people reach the stage in which they
"have the cognitive ability to understand the world they
live in," and in which "they can see beyond themselves
and understand their own actions in a moral and legal context,"
they are more likely to act in accordance with the moral logic
they have learned (p. 62). But to know the good is not necessarily
to do it.
However necessary it is to develop students' moral cognition
through teaching, this can be no substitute for the central
mechanism of delivering ethical standards to adolescents:
the encounter between mature adult and maturing adolescent
in an existential situation, where values conflict or are
challenged, where the outer borders of conduct are tested
The schools in which we operate all have violence-prevention
courses, peer-mediation programs, and conflict-resolution
programs. Following a particularly virulent period of violent
episodes, a principal will increase the number of these courses.
Our own program could just as easily be labeled a violence-prevention
program, since, as many of the log excerpts in this book testify,
we spend a great deal of our time attempting to convince students
that some of their behavior is self-destructive. But neither
our program nor the violence-prevention programs are the solutions
to the problem of systematic school violence.
Statistics can be trotted out to "prove" that these
violence-prevention classes and other cognitive approaches
have culminated in a decrease in fighting and physical violence.
The specialized teachers who conduct these sessions often
describe them as stimulating and exciting. A tenth-grade teacher
enthusiastically related to me the successes this approach
was producing in her students. In the same breath, she also
related how many students, reconciled briefly and superficially
during a conflict-resolution session, go outside after school
and finish their fights. That same week, the principal had
asked me, in desperate tones, to do a study of why a sudden
eruption of violence had occurred. The partisans of conflict-resolution
courses and peer-mediation programs partake of the same ambivalent
discourse of violence referred to earlier: on the one hand,
they report how, thanks to these courses, the school has become
an "oasis of safety"; on the other hand, they refer
to the latest stabbing incident or the latest fight that was
discussed in the conflict-resolution course. Unlike the social
reproductionists [theorists for whom school violence consists
of a dominant culture's subjugation of youth], the conflict
resolutionists locate violence primarily in the students,
in their homes, in the community, on the streets--anywhere
but in the structure of the school itself. In their search
for origins, violence is the "other," not the self.
Violence as a Curricular Specialty
This newest response to violence is not only inadequate and
flawed, it also distracts from a fuller understanding of the
etiology of the anarchic behavior. By making violence prevention
the latest specialty--a course offering added to the curriculum
(and one that crowds other basic required courses out of the
schedule)--this movement attempts to circumscribe the phenomenon
and to "cure" it without adequately diagnosing it.
In these "schools," the majority of teachers (those
not involved in teaching conflict-resolution courses) become
confirmed in their view that dealing with violence and aggressive
students is a subspecialty that they had better not get involved
with because they are neither trained in this area nor given
that specific responsibility. Conflict-resolution teachers
who have gone through a few weeks of basic training in this
esoteric specialty have now been added to the list of those
who have whittled away at the teacher's role, which used to
encompass more responsibilities.
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