Use 'Teachable Moments' to Save Young Lives


Mar 8, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on March 8, 2001.

The usually quiet Johnny raises his hand in English class. As he stammers out the answer to the teacher's question, Billy guffaws and nudges Jason. Soon the whole class is laughing and Johnny, red-faced, slumps down in his seat.

Peer ridicule may seem harmless, perhaps because most victims of peer harassment suffer in silence. But a small minority retaliates, as we saw at Santana High School in Santee.

Rather than trying to identify the individuals who are least able to cope with peer intimidation, we should focus our energies on school practices and policies that reduce such harassment in general and that provide youth with skills to deal with it when it occurs. That is, we need a more effective balance between individually focused interventions and comprehensive prevention approaches. Moreover, we need to focus on promoting psychological safety in our schools.

One such program has been developed in our backyard, at the Seeds University Elementary School at UCLA. At UES, safety is not a separate program but a way of life. There is an explicit anti-harassment policy that is integrated into the academic curriculum. Children are taught about respect and caring in the context of the school rules. The policy is rigorously reinforced as staff capitalize on "teachable moments." Peer harassment--a put-down, for instance--brings immediate staff mediation and involved students are instructed about behavioral options and coping skills. Rather than just learning right from wrong, children learn the value of group harmony and develop internal resources to deal with stressful encounters.

In light of the statistics in last week's report by the California Department of Education showing a 17% increase in violent crime in California schools, Santee contributes to our sense of despair. Wednesday's shooting in Williamsport, Pa., while not fatal, adds to it as well. Progress is possible, but only if we realize that the ritual responses to the school violence problem are not only insufficient but could lead us even further astray.

Most initial reactions to the Santee incident, for example, focused on the need to take the warning signs, especially the explicit threats by a troubled student, seriously. Warning signs should never be ignored, of course. The critical issue here, however, is what to do once a student has been identified as potentially dangerous.

Profiling--that is, early identification of violent students--is a tactic used in schools across the nation. It is based on two assumptions: that these children can be identified in a valid and reliable manner and that there are remedies for their volatile behavior. But both assumptions are usually unfulfilled.

Identification of at-risk youth is tricky. There are many youngsters who are "troubled," get picked on by others, have difficulty dealing with personal problems and have access to guns. Yet most of them do not commit crimes. Furthermore, research has shown that if those who are so identified--correctly or incorrectly--are then removed from their usual environment and put into treatment programs with other antisocial youths, the likelihood that they will commit future crimes may be increased rather than decreased.

Another common reaction to school shooting incidents has been to bolster the physical safety of schools with metal detectors, guards and locker searches and to expend additional resources on crisis management. But the critical question is why so many youths bring weapons to school in the first place. Student surveys indicate that the No. 1 reason is self-defense, not acting out. Students feel threatened by their peers.

It is not clear that extensive physical security measures make students, as opposed to administrators and parents, feel more secure. In fact, some principals believe that students' feelings of anxiety are heightened by the presence of metal detectors and locker searches. Santana High School had adopted many state-of-the art physical safety measures. It had a staff of counselors available to deal with troubled students. What they were not able to stop was the steady ridicule of Charles Andrew Williams.

Unlike many violence prevention programs, comprehensive school-based prevention approaches like the one at UES are not expensive. But they require a commitment on the part of staff, parents and students. Are we ready for such educational alternatives?

Jaana Juvonen is a behavioral scientist at RAND and co-editor of "Peer Harassment in School: the Plight of the Vulnerable and Victimized," to be published this month by Guilford Press.

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