March 31 — 6:41 pm, 2011

Dealing with school violence: Accusations or conversations?

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“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.

the notebook

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