Safe Schools: Lessons from the Sites

Safe Schools: Lessons From The Sites

If we are to reach real peace in this world...we shall have to begin with the children.

         —Mahatma Gandhi

How Serious is the Problem of Violence in Our Schools?

  • Some of our young children and youths bring their experiences, memories, and violent behavior with them to school.
  • Aggression in American schools manifests itself in attacks on teachers and students, vandalism, and property damage.
  • Over three million assorted crimes - about 11% of all crimes - occur each year in America's 85,000 public schools.
  • Every hour, on school campuses, more than 2,000 students and about 40 teachers are physically attacked.
  • A school crime is taking place every six seconds.
  • Each day some 100,000 children take guns to school.
  • Every hour, on school campuses, nearly 900 teachers are threatened.

Executive Summary

During the last ten years, Americans have seen and experienced violence on a scale never before imagined. "We have come to the realization that our society is in the midst of an epidemic of violence" (Lantieri, 1995, p. 386). Some young children and youths in our society experience or witness violence in their homes, neighborhoods, and communities. According to Beverly Jackson, of the National Center for Clinical Infant Programs, "Most children don't know how to react to violence except with violence ... and although many educators believe children are so young they'll forget atrocities ... children can remember [violence] for a long time. Sometimes, that's all they'll think about" (Sauerwein, 1995, p. 24).

Unfortunately, some of our young children and youths bring their experiences, memories, and violent behavior with them to school. Cutrona and Guerin (1994, p. 95) report: "Aggression in American schools manifests itself in attacks on teachers and students, vandalism, and property damage." Sautter states: "Over three million assorted crimes - about 11% of all crimes - occur each year in America's 85,000 public schools ... a school crime is taking place every six seconds" (1995, p. K5). Each day some 100,000 children take guns to school. Every hour, on school campuses, more than 2,000 students and about 40 teachers are physically attacked, and nearly 900 teachers are threatened (Lantieri, 1995).

School administrators agree that during the last five years, violence at the national level has increased. A study conducted by The Executive Educator in 1993 reported that nearly all district and campus administrators surveyed agreed that there had been an increase in school violence in the past five years (Texas Education Agency, 1994). A recent survey found that 44% of students surveyed reported involvement with angry scenes or confrontations during the previous month and 24% reported involvement in physical fights. Furthermore, more than one-third of America's junior high school and high school students and almost half of the parents surveyed believe that their schools do not provide an adequately safe environment (U.S. Department of Education, 1995).

What can teachers, administrators, parents, and the community do about such alarming statistics? How can they stem the tide of rising violence? What can they do immediately to manage violent situations in schools so that the normal functioning of the school is not disrupted? What can teachers and administrators do to keep fear of violence from depriving students of their ability to concentrate on learning? What can administrators do to help teachers feel secure so that they can continue to present learning experiences that increase academic achievement for all students, especially for those at risk of school failure? This edition of Issues ... about Change will suggest solutions to some of these questions. Actions that schools can take to address this increasing problem in our schools today-such as conflict resolution programs and collaboration with parents, state and federal agencies, community organizations, local businesses, the entire community-will be presented. Specific strategies that have been successful in curbing school violence in some specific schools will be highlighted.

What Can Leaders Do Now?

School leaders can create the safe learning environment that is essential for increasing academic achievement by all students. School leaders can create safe schools where teachers can concentrate on teaching and students on learning without the disruptions caused by violence. In addition to dealing with violent situations as they happen or implementing a crisis management plan, school leaders must develop systems to prevent violence. "Violence does not drop out of the sky at age fifteen ... rather, it is part of a long developmental process that begins in early childhood" (Hechinger, 1994, p. 4).

Violence Prevention: A Developmental Process

Young children may experience violence directly or observe violent behavior in their home, in their community, on television and movie screens. Sauerwein cites Ronda C. Talley, an education researcher for the American Psychological Association, "The violence in society is affecting children at earlier ages than people thought possible ... Children have done an excellent job at learning what society teaches them: that life is often violent" (1994, p. 23). Schools, as well as parents, caregivers, daycare, and health care providers, are seeing more aggressive behaviors in young children. "If your schools haven't seen this phenomenon already, it could be only a matter of time" (Sauerwein, 1995, p. 23). Hechinger reports the findings of a study of first and second graders in Washington, DC: "45% said they had witnessed muggings, 31% had witnessed shootings, and 39% had seen dead bodies" (1994, p. 2).

The goal of violence prevention should be the reversal of the trend of violence among very young children. "Professionals in our society ... who address the issue of violence eventually conclude that violence is a problem that begins at home ... [They] all agree that families play a vital (but not an exclusive) role in teaching children to use force to resolve their conflicts" (Prothrow-Stith, 1991, p. 145).

Generally, children react to violence with violence because they have not been taught any other way of behaving. Sauerwein cites a recent study focusing on the "effects of violence on children under age 3 [which] concluded [that] children are highly susceptible to storing violent memories. Many children, including elementary-age children, interpret their world based on these memories ... Indeed, experts on children and violence say the fear, confusion, or acceptance of violence as normal is what triggers aggression in children 10 and under" (1995, p. 24).

Early Intervention with Young Children

School leaders must take the lead to create partnerships with family members, caregivers, daycare providers, and parents-the child's first teachers. Parents can provide valuable information, especially about young children, regarding the home environment, and the child's anxieties, fears, and aggressions. Early childhood specialists from the community may be willing to serve as a resource to assist teachers, parents, and staff in the area of child development.

Schools and local Head Start programs are developing partnerships that result in the sharing of resources such as health care, vision screening, dental exams, immunizations, parent education, parent involvement, and other services. State and federal agencies, and the department of public health in many cases, are eager to assist schools. Local businesses may work with schools financially as well as serve as mentors and as volunteers.

By providing volunteers and mentors as role models for a few hours a week, the entire community can rally behind the school to teach children to interact with respect, kindness, and consideration. Young children need to learn such basic skills as respect for self, for others, and for property. They need help to learn how to share, take turns, cooperate, and help others (Hechinger, 1994). Even a well-planned violence prevention program directed at young children will not produce quick results. It will take time to reap the benefits of early childhood intervention as inappropriate behaviors are unlearned and new behaviors learned.

School Violence Prevention Initiatives

In an effort to counteract increasing violence in schools, school leaders are establishing new school suspension policies and adopting zero tolerance policies for possession of weapons. According to a recent study, half of the districts surveyed search lockers, 24% have sporadically used drug-sniffing dogs, 41% have instituted dress codes, and 15% use metal detectors in their schools (Sautter, 1995).

School leaders are also finding that teaching conflict resolution and peer mediation skills can help decrease violence. The school, especially the elementary school, is becoming the place to teach students new behaviors that can reduce or prevent their involvement in violence.

Conflict Resolution Programs and Peer Mediation

Whether the school system is urban, rural, or suburban, confrontations between students occur daily. Many times the result is violent and tragic. The increase in student conflicts has brought about a need for training in conflict resolution. In the classroom, children from different backgrounds work together to learn how to manage conflict and anger and how to settle their disputes in a nonviolent manner. About 60% of the districts surveyed in a recent study teach the skills of conflict resolution and peer mediation to students, and more than 2,000 schools in the United States conduct conflict resolution programs (Sautter, 1995, p. K8).

Research indicates that conflict resolution and mediation programs are successful in reducing violence because students learn that there are appropriate and inappropriate ways of expressing anger and that arguments, misunderstandings, and altercations do not have to end in violence. Students also become aware that violence begets violence (Hechinger, 1994). "Programs in many schools all over the nation have been designed to help school children with what one school teacher calls 'the fourth R-Relationships.' ... The goal is to teach children how to get along with one another" (Prothrow-Stith, 1991, p. 173). Research suggests that people who do not learn to get along with others as young children will probably continue to have problems later in life (Cutrona and Guerin, 1994).

Schools Working as Partners with Parents and the Community

School leaders working with parents as partners and collaborating with the entire community is a first step toward curbing gang-related violence and violence in general at school. When parents communicate regularly with teachers regarding absences, tardies, unfinished assignments, and inappropriate behavior, students see that the home and the school are working together to help them succeed. "The closer the parent is to the education of the child, the greater the impact on child development and educational achievement" (Fullan, 1991, p. 227).

"Schools can become a leading force for community mobilization" (Suntag, 1955, p. 8). Schools can collaborate with state, federal, and other service agencies to provide additional assistance and services to families of at-risk children and youths in communities with significant poverty and a low level of education. The entire community has the responsibility for creating safe schools, free of gang-related activities and violence.

What School Leaders Are Doing: Examples from the Field

To meet the challenge to create safe school environments, school leaders are providing training in conflict resolution and peer mediation in addition to other school improvement efforts that enhance instruction and increase academic achievement for all students. Students learn to express angry feelings without hurting other people. Five- and six-year-olds learn how to stand up for themselves without engaging in altercations with their peers (Prothrow-Stith, 1991). "The lessons of assertion and civility are taught formally and then incorporated into the daily life of the classroom" (Prothrow-Stith, 1991, p. 174).

John L. Dibert Elementary School

The Conflict Resolution/Peer Mediator Program at John L. Dibert Elementary School is an example of a successful program that is teaching younger students ways to deal with anger and interpersonal conflicts without violence. The Dibert program teaches student mediators in grades 4 and 5 the process of resolving conflicts and active listening. The program also presents this information in mini-lessons to other students. Dibert teachers have continued the training every spring since it began in 1991, with the assistance of parents and volunteers. At Dibert, the responsibilities of peer mediators include:

  • wearing the mediator T-shirt when on duty
  • being on time
  • filling out the report immediately after each conflict mediated
  • making up classwork missed as a result of being a mediator
  • attending the regular mediator meetings
  • agreeing to serve as a mediator for the whole school year.

Peer mediators work in small groups to help students solve minor conflicts during lunch and on the playground. They do not interfere if conflicts become physical, and they are not there to discipline students. Teachers and other students may refer arguments between students to on-duty peer mediators.

Student peer mediators meet once a month after school to evaluate this highly structured process and to receive additional training. Peer mediators model skills and behaviors for other students. The general school population also benefits from the peer mediation training. The following guidelines are part of the peer mediation training at Dibert School:


  • Ask students if they want help
  • Listen carefully to students involved in a conflict
  • Help students solve their own problems


  • Impose your solutions on other students
  • Try to force anyone to accept mediation
  • Try to break up physical fights
  • Take sides

Active Listening Guidelines

  • Look at the person who is speaking.
  • Show by your tone of voice and friendly expression that you want to be helpful.
  • Don't interrupt.
  • Try to understand how the person is feeling.
  • Paraphrase what the person has said and say what you think the person might be feeling.
  • Don't take sides.

Memorial Middle School

The Gang Intervention/Education Program at Memorial Middle School was established during the 1992-93 school year, when school officials had to address the problem of gang violence. Before that time, gang activity had not been a serious problem at Memorial. As school officials took action, communication was initiated with the City Police Department. As a result, a police officer attended all extracurricular activities and assisted with morning and after-school duties. The counselor met with the leaders of the two gangs, who agreed to curb gang activity at school. Consequently, during the 1993-94 school year gang activity was almost nonexistent at Memorial. However, at the start of the 1994-95 school year, a small gang, in affiliation with one major gang, existed.

Administrators and staff collaborated with the community to continue initiatives to decrease gang activity. Partnerships with such service agencies as the Children, Youth, and Families Department and the Juvenile Probation Services were effective. Currently, students involved with the probation office are visited at school one afternoon a week. The probation office checks on their behavioral and academic progress. Administration and staff meet with a social worker one morning a week to discuss both students who might benefit from the agency's services and students who have been placed in foster homes. In addition, school officials monitor students who are in various residential placement programs. This approach has proved to be extremely beneficial in facilitating services for students who are in crisis.

To ease conflict between the gangs and the school athletes, students are involved in a basketball game one day a week during a morning class. After every game the two teams discuss the importance of establishing positive relationships and teamwork. The counselor supervises all games and leads the groups in discussion and conflict resolution activities. The Male Involvement Program also helps students to learn more appropriate ways of dealing with conflict. At this time gang activity at Memorial has significantly decreased.

Because Memorial has established lines of communication with parents, parents are contacted immediately after an incident and are requested to accompany students who continue to exhibit inappropriate behavior to every class. Parents are also requested to co-sign contracts with students who continue to be discipline problems. In many instances, parents have helped their children change inappropriate behavior. While zero tolerance, in-school detention, suspensions, trash detail, and cafeteria detail have proved effective, the most successful intervention has been immediate response to inappropriate behavior-students know there are consequences for their behavior.

Pharr-San Juan-Alamo High School

Pharr-San Juan-Alamo High School (PSJA), a large south Texas high school with 2,500 to 2,800 students, had to take a stand when gang activity became a serious problem. Major grade-level changes from 1981 to 1993 had a negative effect on students as well as on relationships among teachers and staff. Originally a 9-12 campus (for 17 years), from 1981 to 1990, PSJA served only grades 10 through 12 (Fuentes, 1994). During the 1990-91 and 1991-92 school years, PSJA served grades 9 and 10. This was a difficult time for students and teachers because 9th and 10th grade students did not adjust well to the change, had difficulty staying on task, and did not have the older students to serve as positive role models. Then, with the 1992-93 school year, PSJA became a four-year high school again, with grades 9-12. Teachers and students were shuttled from one school to another several times during the period from 1981 to 1993. Such turnover had a destabilizing effect on relationships among staff, and there was little sense of belonging (Fuentes, 1994).

PSJA had a negative reputation in the community because of intimidation of students in school, fights among students, and gang rumbles during passing periods. Changes occurred in 1989, when the new principal concentrated on developing positive attitudes about home, school, and interpersonal relationships. He believed this was the key to preventing gang activity at PSJA and increasing academic achievement for all students.

Efforts to improve attitudes of teachers, students, and parents focused on monthly staff development sessions. The first session, early in September 1992, dealt with Life Management Skills (LMS). Teachers got to know one another better as they worked in groups and participated in the activities. As a result of the monthly LMS sessions and because PSJA was a four-year high school again, staff began to work better together.

To foster a more positive school climate and continue to decrease gang activity, the PSJA Discipline Committee introduced to the entire staff a new Discipline Management Plan, developed by teachers, in the fall of the 1994-95 school year. As a follow-up to the plan, the Discipline Committee also presented new tardy and dress code procedures to every teacher. Teachers and staff are now beginning to work better as a team, with students as the number one priority. Teachers and staff help supervise the halls and the school to maintain discipline. Staff report that gang rumbles during passing periods, intimidation of students, and gang activity have decreased by 90% since the 1990-91 school year.

Research suggests the importance of parental involvement in children's education, but "very few parents attend parent meetings or serve on committees regarding the curriculum and development of procedures to help operate schools" (Paul, 1994, p. 45). If PSJA was to provide a safe environment for students to increase academic achievement, parents had to be involved in their children's education. The first parent meeting, held early in the 1992-93 school year, addressed gang activity at school. This meeting led to monthly parent meetings and parent training sessions, all held at school in the Parent Room (Fuentes, 1994).

As parents became better acquainted with the school, they began to participate in supervising the halls and making suggestions to students regarding inappropriate behavior, such as "Let's go on to class now." In some cases parents escort disruptive students to the office. Assistance by parents has helped to decrease the number of fights during passing periods and has helped students to realize the negative consequences of gang-related activities in school.


PSJA High School and Memorial Middle School have encountered and responded to student conflicts before, after, and during school hours. Conflicts have included arguments between students, altercations between groups of students, and major gang rumbles involving many students. Both schools have successfully developed strategies for responding, in the most positive and appropriate manner, to such incidents. Dibert School has concentrated on teaching students at the elementary grade level techniques for dealing with anger and interpersonal conflicts without violence. The emphasis at Dibert has been on motivating the children to feel good about themselves and other students by rewarding their positive behavior.

A school must be prepared for the worst incidence of violence. "Schools that are prepared for major crises will be better able to handle more common disruption and other more serious incidents such as a suicide or the accidental death of a student" (Kadel and Follman, 1993, p. 3). "Even schools and districts with limited resources can have effective prevention programs as long as the strategies they design are complimentary [sic] and directed toward clearly identified goals" (Kadel and Follman, 1993, p. 21). To ensure that schools are structured to increase academic achievement for all students, especially for those at risk, administrators, in collaboration with the entire community, must function as advocates for schools without violence.

Representatives from the following schools shared information for this paper:

John L. Dibert Elementary School-
Sheri Funderburk


Memorial Middle School-
Cip Chavez
Ron Montoya


Pharr-San Juan-Alamo High School-
Esteban Garcia, Jr.
Roberto Loredo
Mary Ambriz Soto



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  • Prothrow-Stith, D. (1991). Deadly Consequences: How Violence Is Destroying Our Teenage Population and a Plan to Begin Solving the Problem. New York: Harper Perennial.
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Issues . . . about Change is published and produced quarterly Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL). This publication is based on work sponsored by the Office of Educational Research & Improvement, U.S. Department of Education under grant number RP91002003. The content herein does not necessarily reflect the views of the department or any other agency of the U.S. government or any other source. Available in alternative formats.

The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) is located at 4700 Mueller Blvd., Austin, Texas 78723; 512-476-6861/800-476-6861. SEDL is an Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer and is committed to affording equal employment opportunities to all individuals in all employment matters.


This issue was written by Alicia Castro, Research Associate, Services for School Improvement, SEDL.

Published in Issues ...about Change Volume 5, Number 2, Safe Schools: Lessons from the Sites (1995)