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Dealing with school violence: Accusations or conversations?

by Len Rieser on Mar 31 2011 Posted in Commentary
Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pratanti/3631956828/

"It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness." -Chinese proverb

“The students are hopeless."

“The union is useless."

“The administrators are incompetent, and liars to boot."

“The families are horrible."

These, and many more, are among the comments responding to the Inquirer series on school violence.

I’ve lived in Philadelphia for 30 years, but I'm still not used to the way we sometimes approach difficult situations. We blame each other, we accuse, we ridicule, and – without ever quite acknowledging it – we give up.

In a way, it makes sense. If we're all hopeless, incompetent, and useless, it's obvious that our problems aren't going to get fixed anytime soon. Perhaps that's why the "just replace 'em" (teachers, administrators, kids, schools) approach to school reform is becoming popular. (Reminds me of one of my favorite Vietnam-era bumper stickers -- "U.S. Out of North America!")

My difficulty with the Inquirer series isn’t, for the most part, with what it says. On the contrary, there’s some great reporting here. What bothers me are some of the attitudes expressed in the stories and the reactions to them.  

I'm not referring to the legitimate feelings of those who have been victims. I'm talking about how we, in the wider community, talk about who each other is, what each other has (or hasn't) done, and how whoever-it-is is incapable of doing anything right.

Reducing school violence requires multiple strategies. All of the following, most of which have been mentioned in the series, are clearly needed:

Of course, we can’t make all these things happen, to the extent they need to, all at once. And even if we could, we would run up against some bigger forces – such as impoverished communities, joblessness, drugs, and so forth -- and would achieve, at most, only partial success.

But we can make some progress if we are willing to question our assumptions; to resist the habit of accusing everyone else of being the problem; to notice that there are some good things going on in Philadelphia; and most importantly, to believe that, in Philadelphia as in every other city and country around the globe, things can get better. 

After all, most people on this planet have it a lot tougher than we do, and they seem to manage, at least sometimes, to move forward together.

I know, I know -- how naive, this has gone way past the point where it's about talking with each other. But I've been spending time in and around Philly schools for 30 years. And I think I know both the extent of the problem, and the extent to which one-dimensional, confrontational, blame-laying attitudes have proved effective in the past. Not very.

So I hope that we’ll see some examples of a different kind of thinking. The kind that says that Philadelphians are capable people; that we can improve this situation, even if we can't do everything that's needed right away; that none of us is just a jerk who can’t do anything right; and that, ultimately, we are the people that we've got to work with. The student groups who have created the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools may be showing us something about this.

If results could be had by cursing the darkness, all would be well in Philadelphia.  But they can’t. I hope the Inquirer series will lead some of us, instead, to light a candle -- for the victims of violence, and for our own power to work with each other, respectfully and nonviolently, to make things better.

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Comments (12)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 03/31/2011 - 20:03.

Len, very well said. And I think this is the right approach, when all is said and done. It is time for healing. I admit to getting caught up in the negativity. As a teacher I tend to take criticism of Philadelphia teachers personally. I've been stuck in such a negative place mentally, but your words have redirected me. Thank you for that. I hope this inspires others as well.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 03/31/2011 - 20:15.

Excellent post. These thoughts echo my mind and am grateful for the reminder. I want to work harder at being part of the solution. I love my students I want to help them feel empowered. I am an educator. This does not mean that I implement initiatives and use the current jargon that is circulating as best practice. It means I teach kids to learn, I challenge them to stretch their minds, I encourage them to be better than they think they are and to reach for higher and higher goals. Today I will start focusing on that and not all the negative stuff that I hear around me even though it can be very difficult sometimes.

Submitted by lcr3002 (not verified) on Thu, 03/31/2011 - 20:17.

As a teacher, I see problems coming from every direction: the kids, their parents, teachers, other adults in each building, admins, District admins, the city-state-federal education departments, city-state-federal legislators, and the executive branches of each.

The major problem I have with Charter schools is that they do not fix the problem of students with special issues. Same with the Renaissance/Promise Academies.

The problem I have with CSAP is that it does not help students or it doesn't help them fast enough. The process starts with a problem, then the teachers have to document the problem for 30 days, and then process really begins as it goes into the hands of the counselors who have 200-300-400 students or more.

There are a lot of problems that are not being addressed or not addressed fast enough.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 03/31/2011 - 20:28.

Try this: ask any teacher at random in any public school what they think the problem is, and this is what you'll hear:

1- the school doesn't have an adequate discipline plan and follow through
2- incidents are not being reported, because principals don't want their schools on the radar screen.

Children should know what they can do, and what they cannot get away with. We are the adults, and if we can't make it work,then the children are running the show.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on Fri, 04/01/2011 - 07:47.

Inmates running the asylums.

Submitted by Teacher (K.R. Luebbert) (not verified) on Thu, 03/31/2011 - 20:42.

Good post, Len. I truly believe that those of us who teach in the Philly public schools are lighting a candle every day. We are lighting it despite gale force winds trying to blow it out at every turn. You are right, though, we need to try to focus our energies positively and do our best for our students. We cannot do it all, however--we do need a partnership with the entire community.

Submitted by lcr3002 (not verified) on Thu, 03/31/2011 - 21:03.

Criticism is what will fix the problem. Ignoring it will not help.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 03/31/2011 - 22:05.

Think back to seeing your first picture of Ackerman on the computer, and you'll see HER standing with the children, and where are the teachers on her list of core principles? I think around 3rd or 4th, as facilitators in the classroom or some other disrespectful term. None of this is a surprise to me, but I believe the poster is right in saying we must forge a partnership with the community. It cannot be forged with this administration, but there is strength in numbers and alliances.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 04/01/2011 - 08:00.

Great post. I have also been reading the Inky series, and so have my coworkers. One coworker said the Inky articles are making her more angry and hopeless about our city's school system than ever. I am going to show her this post to help her get some perspective.

Thanks for pointing to a group that is working on solutions: the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools. I was able to be part of the march they held on Wednesday, and I got to hear about the platform they created. It should be featured in the Inky, along with other community-created models, because it is the beginning of a solution to the violence we are seeing in schools.

I think the Inquirer should have put more of their reporting effort towards exploring solutions and highlighting some of the people in this city-- yes, there are some-- who are actually creating solutions to school violence.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 04/01/2011 - 18:27.

Anger and hopelessness come from not being listened to or represented, so the idea is to turn that anger into proactive action! Strange as this may sound, think about it. If you have violent public schools, what would this administration's natural reponse be? OUT with the public and in with the alternatives. If we can see that the desinged to fail plan is at work, it's something we ought to address.

Will they give the schools NTA's back nad more security cameras etc. as Jerry Jordan has advised, or will they see this as yet another opportunity to gut the schools?

Submitted by teacher (not verified) on Fri, 04/01/2011 - 12:12.

I have been reading the series with interest. King HS has been mentioned a number of times....interesting the way things are going this week at King.

Submitted by Helen Gym on Fri, 04/01/2011 - 18:56.

Beautifully put Len. I hope Sunday's story can show that a once marginalized set of youth - recent immigrant students who spoke little English - turned around South Philadelphia High School not only for themselves but for the broader community. And in partnership with a new principal and a multiracial coalition of students are proving that things are possible even in the most toxic of atmospheres if there are guiding principles and an engaged community.

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