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Restoring the Peace

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The catalyst for a homicide is often shockingly trivial: a perceived slight, a squabble over an athletic jacket or a girlfriend, resentment over a low grade. More complex are the underlying problems that fuel violence. Law enforcement officials point to the ever increasing availability of weapons. Critics of today’s entertainment cite the ubiquity of murder and mayhem in the movies mid on television. Sociologists trace violent behavior to the stresses of poverty and fissured families. Senior writer Susan Reed asked two experts who have created programs that address school violence—an educator and a physician—to discuss its causes and possible cures.

James P. Comer, M.D.

Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry, Yale University Child Study Center

Kids have to develop in order to achieve. They need to be treated well, to be respected, to feel they belong. If a child doesn’t get those things, he or she will feel angry, alienated and will often lash out.

Children in poor families are at greatest risk. It is they who are least likely to have a positive preschool life experience. Until the 1960s, manufacturing jobs that required little education and few skills could support a family. But as our economy changed from manufacturing-based to information-and service-based, the U.S. made little effort to provide job training that might have prevented subsequent family deterioration.

Our School Development Program operates in 300 schools in 18 states where children are socially underdeveloped, unprepared. Its effectiveness derives from our belief that to change the culture of a school you have to strengthen the family. So we bring together not only teachers, administrators and students but also parents to develop a comprehensive plan of social and academic goals.

In the communities where we focus our energies, parents typically have little contact with the schools. Our first objective is to get them to participate. For example, in one of our schools a group of girls was constantly being sent to the principal for misbehaving. Instead of suspending the students, the principal asked a school social worker to observe them. The principal then created an activity group—they started a knitting project and went on trips together—that included the troublemakers, their teacher and their parents. There were two results: The girls stopped being disruptive, and the parents, realizing they could have a positive impact on their daughters, asked that a parenting seminar be set up for them.

We try to create a culture of fair play, problem solving, collaboration, and consensus making. When these values are generated by teachers, students and parents, it permeates the school. We want students to behave, we want them to be in a safe environment and we want them to be interested in learning. Then we will have schools that teach, homes that support—and children who achieve.

Deborah Prothrow-Stith, M.D.

Assistant Dean for Government and Community Programs Harvard School of Public Health

When I worked in the emergency room of a Boston city hospital, I used to stitch people up and send them back out. Then I realized we were dealing with victims of violence different from even other disease or injury we treated. We never sent heart attack victims home to have another heart attack; we taught them about diet, exercise and stress. We never sent people who had attempted suicide home without offering counseling. But violence? We were only responding, not preventing it.

We know the children who arc at risk for violence. We see them in first, second and third grade. Kids send out signals when they’re in pain, afraid and angry: They’re absent from school, they get suspended for fighting. We tend to overlook the signs until they become a crisis.

I started teaching violence prevention in a Boston high school in 1978 when I was a medical student. In 1987 it was formalized as the Violence Prevention Curriculum (or Adolescents. Since then, we’ve had 10,000 requests for the program from 48 states. It’s designed to get kids thinking about how violence occurs, that it’s not inevitable. We challenge the assumption that a fight is the only way to resolve a dispute. We teach kids not to fuel hostility: Don’t pass the rumor; don’t gather around to watch a fight.

Our motto is ‘Friends for life don’t let friends fight.’ Learning to handle anger is a basic skill. The more people practice, the better they get.