Don't Let Schools off the Hook

The dos and don'ts of preventing juvenile violence

By Dr. Helen Smith, forensic psychologist, & Dave Kopel, Independence Institute

Dr. Helen Smith is the author of The Scarred Heart: Understanding and Identifying Kids Who Kill.

12/00 9:50 a.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on school violence.

Although last year saw far less school carnage than did year before, school authorities are spending this summer, like last, laying plans and implementing programs to counter violence in schools. Some of these programs are good — like programs to ensure that kids with problems get help — and some, like "zero tolerance" and the MOSAIC 2000 "geek profiling" software, are bad. But all of them have one thing in common. They blame the kids, while ignoring the school.

Of course, we have known since biblical times that it is easier to see the mote in someone else's eye than the beam in our own. But schools are a major part of the problem. Schools that are successful at preventing juvenile violence look very different from those that are not.

This should come as no surprise. Young people spend more waking hours in school than any other single place. Yet far more attention is focused on the pathologies of television, the Internet, and so on.

But if you listen to students, you hear a very different story: "School is a totalitarian dictatorship: by the book, always by the book, even if the book is wrong mentally," said one high school student who took part in a nationwide survey of teens (conducted by the co-author of this article, Dr. Smith). "They have rules that violate our rights and don't protect our safety in any way," says another. "Kids in the U.S. have no sense of personal responsibility," writes a Danish exchange student, "because parents and people from school keep them on a tight leash."

Not all schools are like this. In fact, there are two kinds of schools: those that take violence prevention seriously, and those whose primary interest is protecting bureaucratic rear ends. Parents may want to note the following characteristics of schools that are successful at dealing with violence.

Schools that are successful do not allow kids to feel intimidated. Teachers and administrators are taught to take immediate action to intervene when bullying is going on, instead of turning a blind eye or even — as happens all too often, especially in phys. ed classes — tacitly encouraging the harassment. When there has been a bullying incident, schools interview all of the kids who were involved. Sometimes the kids who explode into violence believe that they are in an intolerable situation and that no one cares or will help.

"We encourage parents to come in and talk if their child is being bullied, or even just to talk about their child's school experience," explains Michael Bundy, a counselor at a school with a successful violence-prevention program. Then, "we follow up with the parents and kids about what steps will be taken to correct the situation." Most importantly, he adds, "we create a climate of consistency and reliability for parents and kids."

Kids aren't stupid. When schools enact "tough" rules that are strictly enforced against the unpopular but waived for athletes, when discipline is arbitrary or biased, and when promises to "look into" bullying produce no results, they lose faith in the system and conclude that they can count on no one but themselves. That sort of alienation is a major cause of school violence.

Before the next school year, parents owe it to themselves and their children to look at their school's policies. Schools that talk a tough game of "zero tolerance" but that have no procedure for intervening to prevent the kind of conduct that leads to violence aren't part of the solution. As schools begin looking into computer software that promises to profile kids, perhaps it's time for parents to begin profiling schools. Young people's character counts for a lot; so does a school's character.

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