Violence Prevention in Our Schools: Promoting a Sense of Belonging (page 2)
The issue of school safety and school violence has received attention for a number of years. Certainly the tragedy at Columbine High School dramatically heightened interest in what steps could be taken to lessen the likelihood of such violence occurring in the future. Understandably, school shootings attract national and international attention, but we must not be blinded to the reality that less sensational expressions of anger and intimidation occur on a daily basis in our schools, expressed in such forms as teasing and bullying.
The reasons that children inflict physical and emotional pain on their peers are complex and vary from one child to the next. The picture is also complex when we consider how best to deal with angry, violent youth. When a shooting occurs, when a child is taunted or beaten by other students, it is easy to focus our attention on safety measures such as the installation of metal detectors or cameras in the corridors or to hold assemblies in which the concept of respect towards others is extolled and consequences for acts of intimidation are outlined. I wish to make it clear that I strongly support appropriate safety measures and I believe that each school and each community are in the best position to decide what actions are appropriate and, of course, legal. I also believe that values such as respect towards oneself and others should be openly discussed in a school community and that guidelines must be clearly defined for transgressions.
However, as most of us are aware, there are limits to these measures. Metal detectors, cameras, and similar devices provide some protection and that should not be minimized, but they fail to address what I consider to be a vital component of school safety and violence prevention, namely, the relationship that we develop and nourish with each student. When students do not feel connected with school staff, then discussions we have with them, even about themes of respect and kindness, do not have the desired impact. I recall an angry adolescent I interviewed several years. He described a classroom dialogue that centered on bullying and treating others with respect. He said, “If only some of the teachers knew how they came across to us. Some are sarcastic, don’t say hello to you, and always assume you did something wrong. It’s hard to take them seriously when they talk about respect and kindness.”
He added that he had a couple of teachers who “practiced what they preached. You know they care about you. When they talk about us treating each other with respect, it’s easier to hear what they have to say.”
A number of clinicians and researchers have emphasized the importance of a sense of belonging as an essential human need. If students do not feel connected to adults and peers in the school community, they will desperately seek out anyone to satisfy this need for belongingness. Unfortunately, an all-too-familiar scenario is that these lonely youth gravitate towards other students who feel alienated. Cliques or gangs or in-groups and out-groups are the likely result. Struggles to avoid pain and isolation find expression in groups such as the “Trenchcoat Mafia,” which achieved notoriety at Columbine High School.
I am not suggesting that bullying or violence at schools is just a “school problem” or can be traced solely to the existing school climate. Obviously, the roots of anger and violence stretch beyond the boundaries of school to include the homes and community in which children and adolescents reside. Comprehensive programs are necessary to deal with the problem of violence, programs that address issues of poverty, accessibility of guns to our youth, drugs, more effective parenting practices, and the availability of activities that keep children off the streets. However, schools are an integral part of the community and thus are in a position to assume an essential role in addressing the problem of alienation and violence.
As we reflect upon the magnitude of this problem, it could prompt a pessimistic outlook. For instance, caring and compassionate teachers have asked me, “What can we do? Most of this child’s problems stem from factors outside the school. We can try to build kids up during the school day but it seems like a drop in the bucket.”
In response to such comments I express my hope that all parts of a child’s environment will contribute to that child’s emotional well-being, sense of hope, and resilience; however, this is not the reality for many youngsters. Thus, I emphasize that rather than feeling overwhelmed and pessimistic when faced with at-risk children, we must strive to define and appreciate what it is that we can accomplish in the school milieu to nurture caring, cooperation, and learning, and to lessen feelings of anxiety and anger. As many of my readers know, I believe that we must focus our energies in those areas over which we have some control. One such area is the personal relationship we develop with students.
Permission to reprint granted by Dr. Robert Brooks. All rights reserved.
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