PSI High Newsletter
Volume 24, No. 1
Special Issue: School Violence
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The PA Psychological Association responds
In the wake of the April 20 tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado, the Pennsylvania Psychological Association (http://www.papsy.org/) devoted its August 1999 issue of The Pennsylvania Psychologist to the theme of school violence. Eight articles focus on the topic. Here are some of the highlights from each article.
School violence: Maintaining perspective, developing a plan
In the days following the violence at Columbine High School, phony bomb scares and terroristic threats exacerbated the tense atmosphere in many schools. In addition, educators generally see student behavior as becoming less respectful and more irresponsible, negative, aggressive, and defiant.
Programs intended to address school violence should have three essential features.
(1) Since schools reflect the broader culture, programs need to demonstrate an appreciation of general societal trends influencing the academic environment.
(2) The focus should be on specific needs at the local level, rather than on sweeping mandates that may be inappropriate for many settings.
(3) It is appropriate to maintain an optimistic perspective and to recognize that while episodes such as those at Columbine are terrible, they also are extremely rare.
Safe schools are likely to result when we ask What makes a virtuous person? rather than What constitutes a high security school. There are many models available, including 32 exemplary programs recognized by the National Association of School Psychologists.
Murder and mayhem in the schools: How bad is it?
Irwin Hyman and Pamela Snook
Reliable data for school shootings, which began to be collected in the mid-1990s, reveal a drop from 55 in 1992-93 to about 40 in 1997-98. In 1998-99, approximately 30 homicides occurred in U.S. schools. With 52 million students, that means there was 1 death for every 1,733,333 students or a death rate of .0576 for every 100,000 students.
While any homicide is terrible, media reports can help to create an impression that the risks are much greater than they really are, with one result being an increase in get tough legislation that focuses on punishment and on security resources. This trend is taking place despite the fact that empirical evidence provides little or no support for zero tolerance policies and indicates no difference in safety between schools that have police in them and schools that do not. (Columbine High School did have a deputy sheriff stationed there.)
In reality, school violence is not dramatically increasing, and mental health based prevention -- rather than increased punishment or security -- is the most effective way of addressing the violence-related issues that do exist.
A new wake-up call sounds for violence prevention
Myrna B. Shure
Students who torment and physically or emotionally hurt others tend not to care about the suffering of their victims. If we try to overpower such perpetrators, one likely possibility is that they will attempt to regain a sense of control by bullying other students. So rather than focusing on punitive strategies that can actually lead to students feeling even more angry and frustrated, violence prevention programs should empower students to feel proud.
The key is for students to care about both themselves and others. Helping at-risk individuals to develop abilities that allow them to think things through and to make good decisions is one way of increasing their empathy for others. When students possess a genuine sense of empathy in conjunction with effective problem-solving skills, they are unlikely to be hurtful or to compensate for difficulties by trying to bully others.
School violence: A call for professional responsibility
The state legislature is currently considering a number of bills which reflect the conviction that Pennsylvania schools are unsafe places for students and staff. Three themes characterize much of the debate. (1) Some of the danger is perceived in commonly occurring events such as one-on-one aggression, defiance, verbal threats, and disrespect. (2) Other danger is seen as arising out of the possibility of homicidal school violence, and fear of such events is enhanced by copy cat threats and acts reported in the media. (3) Among mental health professionals, concerns have been expressed for students already identified as having mental health needs and therefore frequently viewed as being likely suspects.
We need to make new efforts with regard to increasing the safety of everyone in the school environment and with regard to mutual respect among students and between students and adults. These efforts can be enhanced by using a variety of resources, including Student Assistance Programs, therapeutic staff support, and mobile therapy.
The storms of youth: Violence, depression and the need for adolescent research
M. Allan Cooperstein
For 15- to 19-year-olds in the U.S., the rate of deaths by homicide rose from 10 per 100,000 population in 1970 to 20 per 100,000 in 1994. And in 1995, 24 percent of high school students (grades 9 through 12) reported having seriously considered suicide during the previous year. Teenage depression is much more common now than in earlier times.
DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition) signs of depression include: persistent depressed mood, persistent irritability, appetite disturbance, sleep difficulty, fatigue, poor self-esteem, difficulty concentrating, hopelessness, decreased interest, and recurrent thoughts of death.
APA (American Psychological Association) warning signs of violence include: history of aggression or violence, substance abuse, gang association, being enthralled with guns or other weapons, making threats, difficulty controlling anger, withdrawal, rejection, loneliness, being victimized by bullying, poor academic performance, problems with authority, feeling disrespected, and ignoring others feelings or rights.
Teenagers and those who interact with them need to be aware of these signs of depression and warning signs of violence. In addition, there should be more research on identification and prevention efforts.
Online resources about school violence
The World Wide Web has a great deal of information relating to school violence. Here are some of the best sites.
The Centers for Disease Control sponsor the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, and it has a Division of Violence Prevention. There are lots of statistics, as well as information about violence and about ongoing projects.
This site is sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics and is entitled Violence and Discipline Problems in U.S. Public Schools: 1996-97. It provides rates of violence, as well as coping efforts implemented by schools. The Executive Summary is helpful.
Dr. Pedro Noguera is a professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley. His article discusses causes of teen violence, as well as successful anti-violence programs.
The University of Colorados Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence offers a very good site. There are ideas for program design, as well as a comprehensive selection of links.
This National Education Service site offers publications relevant to schools.
The National School Safety Center also offers relevant publications.
Healthy Relationships is a curriculum that addresses violence prevention by helping students learn skills for managing anger, solving problems, controlling impulses, expressing empathy, avoiding gender stereotypes, being assertive, and communicating effectively.
Pennsylvania General Assembly considers school violence legislation
Susan M. Shanaman
Although many school violence bills have been introduced this year in both the House and the Senate, so far only House Bill 456 has been enacted. On June 26, Governor Ridge signed Act 36, which provides $22 million during the coming fiscal year for grants intended to make schools safer. Grants can be for any of the following (but are not limited to the following): safety curricula, conduct codes for students, assessment of risk factors, development of violence-prevention programs, security-related technology, security personnel, training for student assistance teams, and alternative education.
Many other bills currently are being considered, but the Pennsylvania Psychological Association is most interested in House Bill 172. This would require all school districts to create a school violence prevention plan. A broad-based task force would assess the districts current needs and resources relating to violence prevention and intervention.
Public Education Campaign continues with Youth Anti-Violence Initiative
Well before the tragic events at Columbine High School, the American Psychological Association, in partnership with MTV, had already put a great deal of effort into the Take a Stand Against Violence initiative. But MTV moved up the airing of the Warning Signs video in April because of the Columbine shootings.
Psychologists are encouraged to partner with schools, community groups, or churches to support activities such as watching the Warning Signs video with a class and facilitating discussion that addresses warning signs of violence, as well as appropriate ways of handling pressure, frustration, and anger.
The Warning Signs video focuses on 18-year-old Evan Ramsey, who was sentenced to 210 years for killing a classmate and a school administrator. The video ends with Evan saying the following. Theres no pain in the world like knowing you took somebodys life. Ive got to go every day with knowing that. (To someone who is on the verge of being violent I would say) the situation now, even though its bad, the aftermath is even worse. You have to tell somebody. Even though it may seem that theres nobody that cares, there is. There is somebody that does care. I realized that too late.
The Warning Signs pamphlet (at http://helping.apa.org/warningsigns/) also provides the following suggestions for students. If you believe someone may become violent, it is tempting to simply hope that things will work out, but it is better to act. Here are some things you can do.
Keep yourself safe. Avoid being alone with the person.
Share your concerns with someone you trust and respect.
If you feel threatened, tell someone in authority. Dont resort to violence.
Everyone gets angry at times. But being angry or frustrated does not justify violence. Here are some more appropriate responses.
Confide in someone. Tell the person how you are feeling.
Be prepared to control your anger, rather than letting it control you.
Listen to criticism and try to see the issue from the other persons viewpoint.
Stick up for yourself, but be willing to negotiate.
About Psi High Newsletter
Editor: Kenneth France, Ph.D.
The Psi High Newsletter is published for teachers of high-school psychology by Shippensburg University.