The Myth of School Violence

Several months ago I was chatting with a teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn when we observed an Hispanic woman enter carrying her two year old son. The security guards insisted the little boy walk through the metal detectors by himself. The teacher and I shook our heads at this insulting behavior toward a mother. The teacher said something that profoundly impacted me: “You know Fred,” he commented, “when children enter these doors they are safe, it’s when they leave this school that trouble looms in their lives.” He was absolutely correct, but the media and politicians continue insisting school violence is rampant in American schools when the reality is death awaits youth on the streets of our nation, not in school corridors.

New York City police commissioner Raymond Kelly blasted the American Civil Liberties Report which criticized school security officers for harassment and uncalled for physical attacks upon children. Kelly proudly noted how the police over the past four years had confiscated 22 guns, 11l pellet guns, 224 knives, and 135 box cutters in New York City schools. I do not doubt the accuracy of these figures but they must be placed within a context. There are one million children attending New York schools 180 times a year which comes to a total of about 180 million children in a school every year. If my figures are correct that works out to a gun for every nine million children and a knife for every 800,000 children.

I have taught in Harlem, in a small town high school in California and on the gold coast of Long Island. In each locale I encountered children fighting and myself had to physically intervene to halt fights. My male students in California were usually excused from school in September so they could go hunting with dad. I suspect if the police checked their cars for guns it would have totaled a much larger number than guns confiscated from the entire New York City school system. If one examines school shootings in America over the past two decades every example of a mass attack upon children in school occurred in a suburban or rural school. Could the police commissioner provide a single example of a mass shooting in an urban school? Ironically, in my visits to dozens of schools on Long Island, I have never once been forced to undergo what the Hispanic mother had to experience, going through a metal detector.

Is there violence in schools? Of course, there is violence. But, there is also violence in workplaces and in corporate America. The ACLU cites cases in which elementary age children were handcuffed and arrested for throwing a temper tantrum or for shoving another child. A few years ago in San Francisco a 2nd grader, under the zero tolerance policy, was suspended from school because mom placed a plastic knife in her lunch box. How many examples happened today in corporate America of business managers throwing temper tantrums or people getting shoved and threatened? How many female executives were forced to go through metal detectors and if their bra triggered a reaction then forced to raise their blouse to prove they were not terrorists? Talk to female students in New York City who were humiliated by such occurrences.

Liberals and conservatives have bought into the myth of school violence. Anyone who has studied the history of American education knows school violence was always common just as it was common in American society. I believe the origin of this myth lies in movies like Dead End in the thirties or Blackboard Jungle in the fifties which portrayed angry young boys who used knives and “zip guns.” Last year 50 million children attended school and there were 40 murders. Do the math. I believe that percent has held steady for most of the twentieth century.

Schools merely reflect society. There are over 240 million guns in America and we have a much higher percent of gun violence resulting in murder than most nations. I suspect the violence in schools as a whole is much less than violence in American society. Bullying is rampant in corporate America, harassment of people is common, shouting, insults, and demeaning comments are considered part of normal verbal interactions in the corporate world. But, if children employ such language it means police must be placed in schools. Actually, police are more commonly found in urban or in poverty area schools. There is much less probability they will be found in any elite or suburban school.

I began teaching fifty years ago and in 1956 we teachers usually complained about poor behavior on the part of students and lack of parental support. I have been physically attacked by students, but also am aware that 90% of students in urban, suburban, and small town schools are decent human beings who do not indulge in any form of violent behavior. Believe it or not, but children are people and portray all the qualities of the human experience. If we held corporate America to the same standards demanded of children, there would be police stationed in most office buildings and they would be searching desks and lockers.

Several years ago Russell Baker, a humorist who wrote for The New York Times described having a nightmare in which a judge sentenced him to spend eternity in high school. I challenge anyone who complains about violence in schools to sit in boring classes day after day learning irrelevant material taught by teachers who are harassed by requirements to teach for the test. If high schools had a meaningful curriculum, and if teachers were free to explore their innate creative talents, school violence would be slightly reduced. If children in America attended a school which had a hundred children taught by five teachers, virtually all school violence would end.

Please don’t get me wrong, some children are evil little creatures just like there are evil creatures in every occupation. If you wish to see evil, angry, insulting people in action, attend a college faculty meeting. To the extent we eliminate conditions fostering violence in our society to that extent we will eliminate violence in schools. The fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.