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Youth perspectives on Violence
and the Implications for Public Policy

-- Part 3 --
Provide students with a genuine role in school reform processes

Pedro A. Noguera
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Pedro Noguera.
Pedro Noguera.

Pedro A. Noguera, Ph. D is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University.

3. Provide students with a genuine role in school reform processes

Although many schools have undertaken some sort of reform process, it is very uncommon for schools to provide students with the opportunity to become involved in meaningful ways as changes are discussed and considered. The failure of most reforms to improve the academic outcomes of students is widely recognized (Tyack and Cuban; Fine 1994). However, in most cases, failure is attributed to some weakness on the part of the adults leading the initiative, inconsistency in the implementation of reforms, or an amorphous claim that schools lack the capacity to implement change (Fulan and Miles 1992). The fact that student perspectives on school are rarely incorporated into the reform process generally does not even show up in most analyses of failure.

Several years ago, Seymour Sarason wrote that any effort to alter the structure or organization of schools but ignored the culture of schools would be doomed to failure (1971). Though Sarason’s remarks were primarily focused on the need for reforms to change the beliefs, attitudes and practices of adults -- teachers, parents, administrators -- the same point could be made with regard to students. As the recipients of schooling, students often perceive conditions in school differently than the adults who work there. While they may be less attuned to the complexities of curriculum reform or educational policy, they often have very clear perspectives on issues such as school discipline, grading, teacher-student relations, and other issues that are central to everyday life in schools.

While students may not immediately question the more subtle aspects of the socialization they experience in schools, as some of the papers in this collection show, they can be encouraged to do so when conditions for open discussion are created. The main point is that the need for student input and involvement, not just in reform but as a regular part of school operations, must be recognized as legitimate and important. Especially in relation to issues such as school safety, sexual harassment or disciplinary policies, the voices of students must be heard if those who see themselves as responsible for monitoring such issues genuinely hope to succeed in their efforts.

One brief example may be useful for illustrating how student participation can be effectively incorporated into the school change process. In the early 1990s, administrators and faculty at East Campus, a continuation high school in Berkeley, were considering whether or not they should close the campus during the lunch period. Discussion over the issue had been sparked by a growing awareness that large numbers of students were not returning to school after lunch each day. As the staff discussed what could be done to keep kids at school they were mindful of the fact that efforts to create closed campuses at other schools in the Bay Area had sparked heated conflicts from students who resented the imposed confinement.

To avoid this possibility, the Principal came up with the novel idea of discussing the issue openly in a forum with students. The school’s relatively small size (enrollment -- 150) made it possible for a school-wide forum to be held. During the forum, the staff learned that there were two primary reasons why students left school during lunch and never returned. The first was that students felt that the food sold at the school was terrible, and they preferred food that could be purchased at stores nearby. Additionally, because school ended at 1:30, by the time lunch was over, only an hour of class time remained. Given that many of the students worked after school, returning for an hour of class made little sense since they were already off campus and their classes were hardly compelling enough to return for.

In response to the issues raised by the students, the Principal came up with a novel idea: the campus would be closed but no fence would be erected. This meant that students would not be permitted to leave campus at lunch any longer but enforcement of the rule would be based upon voluntary compliance. In addition, he recruited a group of volunteers to plan the development of a new school diner that would serve meals that students found attractive. The most radical feature of the plan called for the creation of a new dining area on the campus, where in a complete break with most school traditions, students and staff would eat together during the lunch period.

The most significant thing about the success of this exercise in collaboration is that East Campus was a school for “bad” kids; a site designated to serve students who had been dismissed from other schools due to poor attendance or disciplinary problems. If it is possible to collaborate with students like those at East Campus on issues pertaining to school governance, perhaps greater student involvement in reform can be risked at other schools as well.

4. Use educational initiatives to help young people and the adults who work with them to challenge and critique the normalization of violence.

As several of the papers in this collection have shown, the more subtle forms of institutional and interpersonal violence can be more difficult to counter because they are an unquestioned part of our culture and often regarded as normal. Male aggression toward females and bullying among males are just two examples of violent behavior that are treated as “natural” aspects of adolescent socialization. Even less subtle forms of violence such as fighting and the use of guns as toys or for recreational purposes, are accepted as normal because they integral to American culture. A growing body of research suggests that the normalization of violence has a numbing effect upon attitudes toward it, and in a smaller number of cases, can actually contribute to manifestations of violent behavior. (Gilligan 1996)

A number of educators have used critical pedagogical strategies to encourage students to question news and information they receive via the media, or to critique ideas and interpretations of history that reinforce hegemonic ideas. Similar techniques can be used to encourage kids to question the logic and legitimacy of violence (Noguera 2001). To illustrate how this can be done, I will use a final example from a middle school in Oakland, California where I attempted to utilize such an approach.

Teachers that I was working with at middle school in West Oakland learned at one of their staff meetings that students were playing a particularly violent game of “Kill the Man with the Ball” during the lunch recess. The Principal brought the matter to the attention of the faculty because several students had been seriously injured as result of the game and she wanted suggestions to figure out what should be done about it. As might be expected, most teachers responded by calling for the ball to be taken away so that the game could be banned. Some added that the leaders of the game should also be suspended.

I happened to be attending the staff meeting because I was working with the staff on an initiative to increase community involvement at the school. After listening to the conversation as it progressed over half an hour I intervened to pose the following question: “What is there about this game that kids find so attractive that they are willing to risk serious injury?” Interestingly, none of the adults in the room could answer the question. I then pointed out that they would have difficulty enforcing a ban on the game because there were only two adults monitoring over three hundred and fifty students during recess (teachers were on lunch break during recess). Finally, I suggested that they allow me to speak with a small group of the most active participants so that we could learn more about their motivations for playing such a dangerous game.

Before the group discussion, I went out to the recess to see if I could observe the game. As I expected, although the two security monitors had been instructed to prevent students from playing the game, I found a group of kids off in one corner of the playground actively engaged. Of the 15-20 kids involved, most were boys, but four girls hung around the periphery of the game, occasionally entering the fray to chase down an unlucky participant who happened to be carrying the ball. While I watched the game what struck me most was how happy the children seemed even as one of their playmates was being pummeled. I looked on with some puzzlement over the fact that kids competed enthusiastically over who could carry the ball and run with it, even though it was understood that doing so meant one was fair game for collective abuse.

The following day, I sat down to meet with a group of twelve students that had been picked out by the security monitors as the most regular players of “Kill the Man With the Ball”. I started by explaining the concerns that their teachers had raised about the game and I told them they I had observed the game myself and also felt concerned that someone could be seriously hurt (In fact, several students, including some of those in the room, had been hurt already). The students responded with laughter, explaining that it was only a game, and even though some people did get hurt, that no one became angry because they understood the rules: any form of punishment is allowed if you catch the person with the ball. They also informed me that they had changed the name from “Kill the Man with the Ball” (a game I had known and played while a youngster also) to “Nigger Ball”. When I asked why the name had been changed I was told “because this is how niggers get beat down”.

I then probed for further elaboration about the appeal of the game. Most said they played simply because it was fun. Another offered that they learned valuable lessons from the game such as how to cover vital body parts when you are attacked. When I asked if they had been attacked before, they laughed. One student explained that most sixth graders get jumped at the start of school, and next year he expected to be jumped when he entered ninth grade at the high school near by. Another announced that he had been beaten once by the police. Joining in to defend the game he pointed out that the police “beat you a lot worse than what you get out here on the playground”.

Unwilling to accept their answers at face value, I pushed further. I pointed out that even though bad things such as car accidents could happen to anyone it didn’t make sense to prepare oneself for such an occurrence by deliberately causing an accident. My logic was compelling and seemed to effectively undermine the arguments they had used to defend the game until finally one of the kids explained that the main reason why he played was for the excitement. Nodding their heads in agreement, the other students made it clear that the thrill of being chased was ultimately the main attraction of the game. One boy offered “When you got a bunch of people chasing you down and you know that if they catch you they gonna whip your ass, that shit is exciting.”

As I reflected on what I was hearing I was forced to acknowledge that I too could see the excitement of such a game. However, knowing that some of the students were being hurt and that the school would eventually find a way to ban the game, I asked the group whether there weren’t other games they could play that would be exciting but less dangerous. This questioned opened up a discussion about how bored the kids were during recess because there was nothing to do on the asphalt lot that posed as a playground. I asked if they would play non-violent athletic games (e.g. soccer, touch football, basketball, etc.) if provided with equipment, and the students enthusiastically said that they would. More importantly, the opportunity to reflect on their own behavior and actions provided the students and I with a chance to interrogate the feelings motivating their aggressive behavior.

I cite this example at length because it represents in a small but significant way the insights that may be revealed when students are engaged in critical discussions of violence and aggression. Of course, there are risks associated with engaging in such conversations. For example, students may reveal sensitive information that may implicate them in illegal activity and create an ethical dilemma for the adult facilitator. Adult facilitators may also be unable to direct the conversation in ways that do not end up reinforcing the value of violence. To avoid these risks, kids can be warned in advance not to share information that might incriminate them. The facilitator should also have a clear sense of the direction s/he wants the conversation to take. The main point is that by creating the opportunity for kids to discuss the violence they encounter in everyday life, there is a greater possibility that they can critique it from a more detached vantage point. ( 10 )


The issues surrounding youth experiences with violence are complex. Such complexity compels those who would work to devise policy solutions to avoid the simplistic thinking that tends to characterize mainstream discourse on these issues. The challenge for activists and academics who seek to radically alter the direction of policy is to find ways to insure that our perspectives, like those of the youth, are heard and taken seriously.

Research can play a major role in this regard, because if empirical evidence can be used to support particular policy positions, there is greater likelihood that they will be considered. Though traditional methods may be employed in carrying out this research the need to challenge and problematize prevailing assumptions about the nature of violence should make this research different from what academicians typically produce. That difference should show up not just in the orientation of the work, but more importantly in its presentation and dissemination. Academic journals and conferences should certainly not be the only venues at which this kind of work is presented and discussed. School Board and City Council meetings, community centers and school assemblies, these are just some of the places where research on youth violence should be heard, analyzed and critiqued.

The challenge before us is great. The fear of violence and actual manifestations of it are transforming our society into one grand penal colony. In this prison, the inmates are not the only captives. Those who barricade themselves in their homes behind bars, security systems and pit bulls also experience a loss of freedom. So too do those who are no longer able to walk on the streets at night or who fear allowing their children to play in the park, ride their bicycle on the street, or walk to the store on their own.

We need not accept this situation as our fate. However, if we truly seek to create a different future, one that is more peaceful and non-violent than the present, we must actively go about creating it. That is a challenge for researchers, activists, young people and everyone else who still has the ability to imagine and envision another reality.

  • Part 1: Coming to Terms With America's Culture of Violence
  • Part 2: The Implications of Youth Perspectives on Violence for Public Policy

Published in In Motion Magazine September 30, 2001
Article # ER010930001

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