Preventing Violence in Schools
Through the Production of Docile Bodies
Why popular strategies for disciplining students
have proven to be largely ineffective
by Pedro Noguera, Ph.D.
Footnotes and references open to a new window for easy viewing.
The problem of violence in schools, like the related problem of violence in society, has become one of the most pressing educational issues in the United States. In many school districts concerns about violence have even surpassed academic achievement, which traditionally has been the most persistent theme on the nation's education agenda, as the highest priority for reform and intervention. (1) Public clamorings over the need for something to be done about violence in schools, has brought the issue to a critical juncture. The escalation of incidents of violence and the apparent inadequacy of traditional methods of curtailment, has led to a search for new strategies designed to insure the safety and security of children and teachers in schools. (2)
Not surprisingly, the search for solutions to this problem has generated a package of remedies which closely resemble those utilized in society for combatting the threat of violence and crime. (3) Some of the more popular measures include: the installation of metal detectors at school entrances to prevent students from bringing weapons on to school grounds (4); the enactment of "zero tolerance" policies which guarantee the automatic removal of students (through either suspension, expulsion or transfer) who perpetrate acts of violence (5); and the use of police officers and security guards to patrol and monitor student behavior while school is in session. Accompanying the implementation of such measures has been an increase in the tendency of school officials to treat violent incidents, (and sometimes non-violent incidents as well) (6) involving students as criminal offenses to be handled by law enforcement officials and the courts, rather than by the school personnel.
There are other, less punitive approaches that have been introduced as well, to reduce the incidence of violence in schools. Conflict resolution programs have been promoted as a way of teaching children to settle disputes non-violently. Mentoring programs which pair students with adult role models have also become popular in school districts across the country as yet another strategy for reducing violence by providing students perceived to be at risk with the attention, support and counseling of an adult.(7) Teachers have been encouraged to design curricula in order to teach children how to avoid violent situations and to explore ethical and moral issues related to violent behavior with their students.(8) Finally, a variety of counseling programs have been implemented by establishing partnerships between schools and social service agencies, which provide direct services to students regarding issues pertaining to violence.(9)
Though some of these less coercive strategies for reducing violence have proven successful in particular schools, the overall momentum of school policy has been biased toward the "get tough" approach. In response to the pervasive fear of violence among parents and students, politicians and school officials have pledged to quell the tide of violence by converting schools into "lock-down" facilities, and by cracking down on offenders by increasing the penalties incurred upon those apprehended for committing acts of violence. Yet, despite the tough talk there appears to be little reason for optimism given the track record of these kinds of methods.(10)
Like most people, I too would like to see a reduction in violence. As a parent of school-age children and having once served as an elected member of an urban school board, I feel a personal connection to this issue. I share the fear and feelings of vulnerability with regard to the safety of my own children, and I have been burdened by an onerous sense of responsibility for addressing the problem because of the position I have occupied within my community. Having to live with the constant threat of violence is hard to accept, particularly in schools which children are required to attend ostensibly for the purpose of learning. Yet, despite my concern and pressing desire for solutions, I am generally opposed to the current set of prescriptions advocated by policy makers at state and federal levels of leadership. I have opposed these tactics knowing that I risked being labeled "soft on crime", or even worse, being held responsible by the parent of some young victim who believes that my opposition to tough measures caused his/her child to be injured or killed.
To effectively address the problem of violence in schools I believe we must begin by asking ourselves why schools are vulnerable to the occurrence of violence. What is there about the structure and culture of schools which has in recent times increased the likelihood that acts of violence will be perpetrated there? It may be that in a relative sense young people are in fact far safer in school than they are in their neighborhoods, or for that matter at the park, the roller rink or even their home.(11) For many parents and students the fact that schools are "relatively safe" provides little solace given the widespread expectation that schools are supposed to be safe, and therefore should not be judged on the same standard that we use to gauge security in other public or even private places. Schools are "controlled institutions", public spaces where individuals sacrifice a measure of individual liberty in exchange for the opportunity to learn. In such a setting the threat of violence constitutes more than just a threat to personal safety. It represents a fundamental violation of the social contract between school and community; an abrogation which could easily hasten the collapse of popular support for public education.
In the following pages I will approach the problem of violence in schools by analyzing why popular strategies for disciplining students have proven to be largely ineffective as a means of deterring violence. I will focus upon urban schools because violence tends to occur more frequently there, and because I believe that social and economic conditions in urban areas add considerably to the extent and degree of the problem. I will examine the ways in which the historical development of schools and the social purposes which rationalized their creation have influenced current interactions between students and adults within schools, particularly with regard to the application of disciplinary practices. I believe that it is in the context of fulfilling these original goals, goals that have traditionally prioritized maintaining order and control over students as opposed to creating humane environments for learning, that schools have become increasingly susceptible to violence. Current conditions within many urban schools make social control, or to apply Foucault's phrase - the production of "docile bodies" (12), increasingly unlikely. I will also consider the ways in which issues related to the symbolic representation of violence and the fight against it, influence interactions between adults and children within schools, paying particular attention to the ways in which race and class color and inscribe these images.
Whether such an exercise actually proves useful in the development of solutions to the problem of violence in schools remains to be seen. This work draws heavily from my years of working directly with schools in a variety of capacities: as a classroom teacher, a school board member, a university-based researcher, and a consultant. My experience leads me to avoid offering specific remedies or to make claims that I know what should be done to address a problem that is so complex and multidimensional. Still, it is my hope that by suggesting new ways of approaching the question: what is to be done about violence in schools, we can open the door to new strategies based upon a different conceptual framework for understanding the factors which influence the nature of the problem as it is experienced in schools throughout this country.
|Waging the Fight Against Violence
The phrase "fighting violence" might seem to be an oxymoron. For those concerned with finding ways to prevent or reduce the occurrence of violence, "fighting" it might seem to be the wrong way to describe or to engage in the effort to address the problem. To the extent that "fighting" evokes images of violence, it might seem that the old axiom that "You can't fight fire with fire", would suggest that another verb might be more appropriate. However, the choice of terms is not accidental. The prevailing wisdom among policy makers and school officials is that you must counter violence with force; that schools can be made safe by converting them into prison-like facilities;(13) and that the best way to curtail violence is to identify, apprehend and exclude students who have the potential for committing acts of violence from the rest of the population. (14) For this reason, it is important to examine the ideological stance taken toward violence when critiquing the methods used to fight against it, for without doing so it is not possible to understand why failed strategies retain popularity.
In the campaign against school violence, school officials often point to statistics related to the number of weapons confiscated, the number of students suspended, expelled or arrested for violent reasons, as evidence that something is being done about the problem. The number of reported incidents of violence is also used to demonstrate that while valiant efforts are being made to reduce violence, the problem persists, and therefore the fight against violence must continue. (15) The compilation of such data plays an important role in rationalizing the expenditure of resources on security related services; resource allocations that often result in the elimination of other educational programs and services. Such information is also instrumental in framing the public discourse about violence, for as long as it can be shown that quantifiable results are obtained as a result of the fight against violence, combatants in the war can be assured of continued financial backing.(16)
For parents and students who live with the reality of violence and who must contend with the threat of physical harm on a daily basis, such data is largely meaningless, and does little to allay fears. When engaging in what were once ordinary activities, such as walking to school or playing in a park, evokes such extreme paranoia so as to no longer seem feasible, news that arrests or suspensions have increased provides little in the way of reassurance.
Not long ago, I attended a meeting with school officials from an urban school district on the west coast, at which we were discussing the problem of violence and what could be done about it. In reviewing data on the incidence of violence from the past year I jokingly made the following remark: "Here's some good news, homicides are down 100% from last year". To my amazement, an administrator replied: "Yes, the news isn't all bad. Some of our efforts are beginning to pay off". What surprised me about the comment was his apparent belief that since there had been no murders at any of the schools in the district at the midpoint of the school year, as compared to two which occurred during the previous academic year, that there was reason for hope and optimism. I found it hard to believe that district administrators, who generally have little contact with school sites on a regular basis, could accept a statistical analysis as evidence that the schools had in fact become safer.
Yet, within the context of the fight against violence, symbols such as crime statistics take on great significance, even though they have little bearing upon the actual occurrence of violence. Pressed to demonstrate to the public that the efforts to reduce violence are effective, school districts often pursue one of two strategies: either they present statistics quantifying the results of their efforts, or they go to great lengths to suppress information altogether hoping that the community will perceive no news as good news. Metal detectors, barbed wire fences, armed guards and policemen, and principals wielding baseball bats as they patrol the halls, are all symbols of tough action. And while most students realize that a student who wants to bring a weapon to school can get it into a building without being discovered by a metal detector, or that it is highly unlikely that any principal will hit a student with a baseball bat, the symbols persist lest the truth be known that those responsible really don't have a clue about what to do to stem the tide of violence.
|The School as an Agent of Control
To understand why violence has become rampant and how a climate of fear and intimidation gradually came to be the norm in so many urban schools, we must examine the influences which guided the creation of public schools and consider the social role that they were expected to perform. When public schools were being developed in north eastern cities during the latter part of the nineteenth century, their architecture, organization and operation was profoundly influenced by the prevailing conception of the asylum. (17) As the primary public institution designed to serve the needs of the indigent, the insane, the sick or the criminally inclined, the asylum had a profound influence upon the design and management of public schools. While the client base of the early prisons, almshouses and mental hospitals differed, they shared a common preoccupation with the need to control those in held in custody. This was not to be confused with rehabilitating or reforming, for in post-colonial America, crime, immorality, hunger and poverty were seen as endemic to society. Describing this perspective, David Rothman writes:
The role of the asylum was to regiment, control and discipline the social outcasts who were housed there. This was to be accomplished through the routinization of every aspect of life within the asylum, and through the imposition of a set of rules and regulations which were rigidly enforced.(Rothman: 235) A military tone characterized life in the asylum, as did a focus upon sanitation, orderliness, punctuality and discipline. Since the goal of these institutions was not to prepare the inmate for readmission to society, but to eliminate the threat they posed to the safety and security of others, the managers believed that this could best be done by enforcing rigid discipline and by removing undesirables indefinitely from the community.
Once the debate over mass public education was won (Cremin 1961: 8-14), the focus of educators quickly changed to how schools would be organized and what social purposes they would serve. Among the many influences shaping public education at the turn of the century, educational historian, Lawrence Cremin, identities three dominant and distinct agendas that were pursued in relation to the public schools: 1) the need to provide a custodial function for children and thereby serve as an agent of social control; 2) the need to acculturate and "Americanize" large numbers of children born of European immigrants; 3) the need to prepare future workers for American industry. At times overlapping, and at other times conflicting, these goals influenced the content of school curriculum, the training of teachers, and most importantly for the purposes of this analysis, the way in which the schools were to be administered.
From both an architectural and operational standpoint the legacy of the asylum left its imprint upon the public schools. Though their custody over children was limited to a few hours per day, and though the goals of education tended to be framed in humanitarian terms, (19) the need to regiment and control the behavior of students continued to dominate the educational mission. Motivated by a combination of benevolence, related to child welfare, and fear, related to the perceived threat of crime and delinquency, schools were called upon to assume greater responsibility for the rearing of urban children. Defining the problem in moral terms, reformers felt that "...raised amid intemperance, indulgence, and neglect, the lower class urban child began life predisposed to criminality and unprepared for honest work". (Katz 1987: 17) Educators such as Stanley Hall (1901) called for the creation of pedocentric schools which were to be designed to treat the social and psychological needs of children as the central mission of schools. Though child rearing was seen primarily as a responsibility of the family, social reformers feared that many poor and immigrant parents were unfit to raise their children properly.(Cremin 1988:195) For this reason, the public schools were seen as the vehicle through which poor children could be saved. Regarding this point educational historian Lawrence Cremin writes:
To carry out these lofty social goals, reformers promoted efficiency in the organization and operation of schools. Borrowing from the writings of Frederick Taylor and the principles of scientific management that he promoted to increase productivity in industry, similar thinking was applied to the operation of schools.(Oakes: 28; Carnoy and Levin 1985: 95) Supported enthusiastically by many of the businessmen who served on local school boards, efficiency and routinization of school activities were emphasized as way to bring order to city schools. The combination of rising enrollments due to the steady influx of immigrant and rural children into eastern cities, and inadequate facilities, had gradually transformed urban schools into little more than warehouses for children. Cremin's descriptions of schools during this period is helpful in understanding why a focus on order might have seemed warranted:
Whatever the high-minded philosophies that justified them, the schools of the 1890's were a depressing study in contrast...In the cities problems of skyrocketing enrollments were compounded by a host of other issues...school buildings were badly lighted, poorly heated, unsanitary, and bursting at the seams, young immigrants from a dozen different countries swelled the tide of newly arriving farm children. Superintendents spoke hopefully of reducing class size to sixty per teacher, but the hope was most often a pious one. Little wonder that a desire for efficiency reigned supreme.(Cremin: 21)
Acting under mandates issued by authorities who were almost always far removed from the direct management of schools, superintendents and principals employed a variety of strategies to control the students and teachers under their charge. In many school districts, teachers and students were tested on regular basis "to see if the program was being followed".(Tyack1974: 82) Specific instructions were given to teachers that addressed not only curriculum and method, but ways to discipline and control the bodies of their students as well. Describing this preoccupation with disciplining the body, one observer wrote that students were required to comply with the following set of instructions when asked to recite memorized text: "stand on the line, perfectly motionless, bodies erect, knees and feet together, the tips of shoes touching the edge of a board in the floor." (20)
To insure that students were trained appropriately for the kinds of work they would perform after graduation, specialized high schools were created in several cities. Vocational high schools were set up to cater to lower-class immigrant youth, and academic high schools were established to prepare middle class students for higher education and professional careers. At the vocational schools, the curriculum was designed to provide the skills and training needed to obtain industrial employment upon graduation. In this respect, David Tyack's comment that "...urban education in the nineteenth century did more to industrialize humanity than to humanize industry", (1974:74) is helpful to understanding how the relationship between education and the economy influenced the character of schools.
While students were sorted and educated differently to satisfy the needs of industry, educators still wanted students to undergo a common socialization process to prevent fragmentation and to insure that "American" values would remain dominant and undiluted. Fearing that the arrival of this "illiterate, docile mass", would "dilute tremendously our national stock, and corrupt our civic life", educators were called upon "to assimilate and amalgamate these people as part of our American race, and implant in their children, so far as can be done, the Anglo-Saxon conception of righteousness, law and order, and popular government..."(Cremin 1961:68) An important part of the assimilation process included conformity to an assortment of rules governing student behavior, and values promoting the virtues of hard work, punctuality and obedience. (21)
While there is some evidence that schools were challenged in fulfilling their task of social control , (22) in most cases it seems that they succeeded in producing "docile bodies"; students who were prepared to accept their roles as citizens and workers.
With concerns about order, efficiency and control dominating the thinking which guided the early development of schools in the U.S., we must ask ourselves how this legacy has influenced the current character of public schools? As the demographic composition of cities began to change in the 1950's and '60s with the arrival of new immigrants (e.g. West Indians, Puerto Ricans and other Latinos) and the migration of Blacks from the south , and as social and economic conditions within urban areas began to deteriorate , the character and condition of schools also began to change. Disorder was not the immediate result however, for while the student population changed, in many cases the teachers remained the same, with most still relying on methods of control that had proven successful in the past. Writing about the conditions of schools in what he described as "slum areas", James Conant spoke of the need to impose a harsher standard of discipline to insure that discipline and order prevailed.
Many educators would doubtless be shocked by the practice of on-the-spot demotion of one full academic year, with no questions asked, for all participants in fights. In one junior high school I know of, a very able principal found so intolerable a situation that he established that very rule. As a consequence, there are fewer fights in his school among boys, many of whom at one time or another have been in trouble with the police. The school must attempt to bring some kind of order to their chaotic lives...this formal atmosphere appears to work. School spirit has developed...children must stay in school till they are sixteen or till graduation to prevent unemployed, out-of-school youth from roaming the streets."(Conant 1961 :22)
By the mid 1960s however, the situation had changed. Insubordination and aggression on the part of students toward teachers, was becoming increasingly common, and violence within schools, especially among students, was widely seen as the norm. Some educators made the connection between the difficulty schools were having in maintaining control over students to the political turmoil which accompanied the civil rights movement and the riots which took place in many cities across the country. Describing the political dimension of this problem and advising teachers how to respond to it, Allan Ornstein wrote that:
With control and compliance increasingly difficult to obtain, many urban schools lowered their expectations with respect to student behavior. The preoccupation with enforcing rules was gradually replaced with a desire to maintain average daily attendance levels, since this was the key funding formula for schools. As teachers came to realize that they were no longer able to elicit obedience through the "terror of degradation" (Tyack:54), concerns about safety led more of them to understand that they must think twice about how to approach a student, lest their advance be taken as a confrontation for which they are generally unprepared.
Still, schools have not given up entirely on the goal of exercising control over students. Though the task of controlling students may be far more difficult now than it ever was, schools are still expected to maintain some form of order. Beyond the threat to the personal safety of students and teachers, the occurrence of violence within schools represents a challenge to the authority and power of school officials. In carrying out their custodial duties as caretakers of youth, school officials serve as symbolic representatives of state authority. With the power vested in their position they are expected to control the behavior of those in their charge. When violence occurs with impunity, a loss of authority is exposed. For this reason, even amidst the current discourse about violence, it is seldom discussed in isolation from other control issues. More often, violence is equated with insubordination, student misconduct and with the problem of maintaining order in school generally. The way in which the issues become melded together is indicative of how schools perceive their role in relation to the social control function that schools have historically performed in the United States.
For this reason, the exercise of discipline takes on great importance because it serves as the primary means through which symbols of power and authority are restored. In analyzing the symbolic issues associated with discipline and violence in schools, it is helpful to consider the work of Michel Foucault. Writing about the role of punishment meted out upon criminal offenders in France during the 19th century, Foucault describes what he calls the "juridico-political" function of the act.
While the kinds of public executions and tortures carried out in France during the nineteenth century may seem far removed from the forms of discipline carried out in schools today, Foucaults' focus on the relationship between the disciplining act and the "reactivation" of power is relevant to understanding the symbolic role of discipline. The disciplining event, whether it occurs in public or private, serves as one of the primary means through which school officials "send a message" to perpetrators of violence, and to the community generally, that the authority vested in them by the state is still secure. Particularly within the current political climate created by the fight against violence, the disciplining event provides an opportunity for school authorities to use those accused of committing acts of violence as an example to others.
From a symbolic standpoint, the student expulsion hearing is perhaps the most important spectacle at which the meting out of punishment upon those accused of violence can be used for larger political purposes. As a quasijudicial ceremony, the formality of an expulsion hearing often contains all of the drama and suspense associated with a court room trial. Though the event itself is closed to the public, news of the decision rendered by the school board or hearing officers often travels quickly, particularly when the student is charged with committing an act of violence.
Race, Class and the Politics of Discipline
While police officers, security guards and administrators generally assume primary responsibility for managing and enforcing school discipline, in most cases, teachers make the first referral in the discipline process, and therefore have tremendous influence in determining who receives discipline and why. In my work with urban schools, the most frequent concern I hear from teachers is that they have trouble disciplining and controlling their students. This has been especially true in schools at which the majority of students are Black and the majority of teachers are White. Having taught before in urban public schools, I am quite familiar with what teachers are up against, and recognize that some semblance of order and safety is essential if teaching and learning is to take place. However, whenever I conduct workshops in schools I generally try to shift the focus of talk about discipline to discussion about what teachers know about their students. I do this because I have generally found that teachers who lack familiarity with their students are more likely to misunderstand and fear them.
In critiquing the approach to discipline that is most widely practiced in the country today, I in no way want to belittle the fact that many teachers and students have become victims of violence and deserve the right to work and attend school in safety. In many schools, violence is real, and the fear that it produces is understandable. Still, I am struck by the fact that even when I visit schools that have a notorious reputation for the prevalence of violence, I can find at least one classroom where teachers are working effectively with students, and where fear is not an obstacle to dialogue and even friendship. While other teachers within the school may be preoccupied with managing the behavior of their students, an endeavor at which they are seldom successful, I have seen the same students enter other classrooms willing to learn and comply with the instructions of their teachers.
|Published in In Motion Magazine January 12, 1997. © 1997
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