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Strategies to Stem School Violence

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In an Education World e-interview, national school crisis expert Scott Poland discusses the multiple causes and similarities of school violence, and he offers specific strategies that may help prevent more school violence. A member of the National Emergency Assistance Team that responds to school shootings across the nation, Poland is presently on location in Santee, California, the location of one of the most recent school shootings. From there, Poland offers Education World readers his unique insight about the causes of and solutions to school violence and threats of violence. Included: Remedies for the multiple causes of school violence!

About Scott Poland

A member of the National Association of School Psychologists National Emergency Assistance Team (NEAT), which responds to school shootings across the nation, psychologist Scott Poland is able to offer unique insight about the causes of and solutions to school violence and threats of violence. He is currently in Santee, California, providing long-term crisis intervention in response to the recent school shootings at Santana High School. Poland has also responded to school shootings in Littleton, Colorado, and Jonesboro, Arkansas; and he was a member of the U.S. Department of Education's assessment team following the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Poland has written extensively about school crisis intervention and school violence. His works include Coping With Crisis: Quick Reference Guide, (Sopris West, 2000) and Coping With Crisis: Lessons Learned(Sopris West, 1999). He was also a consultant for the U.S. Department of Education's booklet Early Warning, Timely Response; A Guide to Safe Schools, which was sent to every school in the United States in 1998.

Poland is currently president of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), and he will continue to fulfill NASP responsibilities as past president during 2001-2002. He plans to return to Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District as director of psychological services in Houston, Texas, in the fall.

Scott Poland, Ed.D., a nationally recognized expert on school crisis, talked this week with Education World about what schools, parents, and policymakers should do differently to stem the tide of school violence and threats of school violence.

Education World: For the past few years, you and other members of the National Association of School Psychologists have offered advice on how to prevent school violence. What do schools need to do differently to help prevent more violence?

Scott Poland: Districts continue to build large schools that create environments for student anonymity. Even though schools must be designed to accommodate large numbers of students, they need to be made to seem smaller. Obvious ways to create a sense of ownership and belonging are to

  • involve students to seek solutions for school safety through student pledges,
  • recruit students for participation on task forces,
  • build relationships with students,
  • provide more extracurricular opportunities.
I ask, "Why are we sending students home from school at 2:30 in the afternoon? Is there something safe, supervised, and productive for them to be doing? Wouldn't our communities and children be far safer if there were more organized activities for them to participate in?" We must use a multitude of safety approaches when it comes to keeping the campus safe from violence. Metal detectors and increased police presence are not enough.

Our law enforcement and educational staff must work at developing relationships with students that encourage them to come forward when they know something is about to happen. Our students need to know that their concerns will be honored. We need to end the bullying that happens in our hallways, playgrounds, bathrooms, and lockers. Those signs that say "No Drugs, No Weapons" should also say "No Bullying," and we should mean it!

EW: What do parents need to do differently?

Poland: Parents need to get more involved, especially in the lives of their teenagers. As adults, we need to recognize that what we do, our children will copy. Gandhi said, "What we do speaks so loudly that when we talk, our children cannot hear us."

We also need to stop setting up our children's rooms like little kingdoms. When they have their own televisions, telephones, computers with Internet access, and music, they have no reason to leave their rooms and interact with us. Parents should monitor the activities their children are involved in and who their friends are. As parents, we also need to practice responsible gun ownership. Be certain that your gun is not accessible to your child! Be more involved at school and serve on school or district safety task forces. Talk to your children about tough issues, but "reach, don't preach."

EW: Schools are microcosms of our culture. What can others -- those outside of schools and families -- do differently to stem school violence?

Poland: Society needs to recognize the origins of youth violence, which are

  • child abuse and ineffective parenting,
  • violence in the home,
  • media violence,
  • prejudice,
  • substance abuse,
  • gun access,
  • poverty.
Citizens need to support legislation that addresses all of these!

EW: Why are more children troubled today?

Poland: Children today are under extensive pressure to academically achieve more than they have ever achieved before. Television and theater productions have changed so dramatically that viewers are exposed to extreme amounts of media violence. More children have access to guns in the household than ever before, and there is increasingly less parental supervision as adults put in longer hours in the work world.

EW: As part of the National Emergency Assistance Team, you have responded to the tragedies in Littleton, Jonesboro, West Paducah, and most recently, in Santee, California. Reflecting on those schools, on the shooters, and on the communities in which the tragedies happened, do you see more similarities or differences?

Poland: I see similarities in the shootings in these communities. Someone always knew about the violent plans of these perpetrators, because they talked about what they were going to do. We need to help children "end the conspiracy of silence" by developing relationships with students that creates an environment for them to feel compelled to tell an adult when they hear anything suspicious. Many of the shooters were bullied and many were suicidal; we must be more active with strategies to prevent teen suicide, and the suicide prevention initiatives from the Surgeon General need to be funded by Congress!

EW: As you travel around the country as NASP president, what do you see a big need for?

Poland: More mental health professionals in schools would be a start toward meeting the needs of our teenagers today. Counselors see themselves primarily as schedulers and special education assessors. Willy Sutton, the bank robber, was asked, "Why did you rob all those banks?" He replied, "Because, that's where the money is." Why should we deliver mental health and medical services at school? Because that is where the children are every day of the week. But counselors are told not to pull the students out of academic class periods because they might fall behind! Remember Maslow's hierarchy: the needs of safety and security must be taken care of before children can concentrate on learning.

Finally, Congress needs to pass the School Counselor Education Act, which will increase funding for mental health professionals such as school counselors and social workers.

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