How Student Perspectives on Violence
Can Be Used to Create Safer Schools
Part 3 -- School A - description / School B - description
by Pedro A. Noguera
Below I present an analysis of the responses of the students to the surveys and interviews conducted at the two schools.
Of the twenty-two students who particpated in the study at school A, fourteen were African American (seven boys, seven girls), five were Asian American (three girls, two boys), and three were Latino (two girls, one boy). Among the enitre student population only 3% of the students were designated gifted and talented based on their tests scores on the California Test of Basic Skills (CTBS). In contrast, 24% of the students at school A were designated as eligible for some form of special education, while 64% were qualified for compensatory education based on test scores which on average fell below the 38th percentile on the CTBS. Over 60% of the seventh graders at school A were tested below grade level in reading, and 52% were ranked below grade level in math.
Compared to most schools serving middle class children, the academic offerings at school A are quite sparse. Science courses are offered to 7th and 8th graders, but there is no modern equipment in the science labs. There is a school library, but according to the school librarian, no new books have been ordered or received in the last ten years. Algebra is offered at the school to eighth graders, but only fifteen students were considered sufficiently prepared to take the course at the time of this study. There is also a computer laboratory, but access to students is limited to students enrolled in the computer course. The only other elective course available is Spanish which is limited to eighth graders, though a variety of ESL (English as a Second Language), special education and remedial reading classes are also offered.
School A is located in a community with high concentrations of poverty, and the effects of poverty are manifest within the school in a variety of ways. In 1993 95% of the students qualified, on the basis of parental income, for free or reduced lunch. Through a conversation with the school nurse I learned that 43% of the students were identified as asthmatic or having some other form of chronic respiratory condition; a condition which she attributed to the freeways and heavy industry which pervade the community. Finally, and most surprising to me, 68% of the students at school A live with an adult who is someone other than one of their biological parents (i.e. grandparents, relatives, foster care, etc.).
From this description of the characteristics and conditions present at school A one might draw the conclusion that this is a school where concerns about the threat of violence are high. This was indeed the case during the time I was carrying out research at the school, but as will be shown later, a heightened sense of awareness about the threat of violence is increasingly not uncommon even at schools in communities that seem safer. In interviews with teachers and administrators concerns about safety came up frequently, though most often outsiders and the surrounding neighborhood were perceived as the primary source of danger to the school.
During the 1992-'93 school year, fourteen weapons were confiscated from students at school A (one bee-bee gun, five knives, three baseball bats, and five sticks or clubs). Within the school district of which it is a part, school A ranked tenth among thirty two middle schools for the number of weapons confiscated. During the same period, eight students were expelled for violent behavior (mostly fighting) at school, seventy-six were suspended, and the police were called to campus on twenty-one separate occasions to respond to violent incidents involving students or outsiders. Many teachers admitted that the increase in police presence was attributable to a greater tendency to involve law enforcement on matters that previously would have been handled by the school administration.
The contrasts between school A and B are striking. Test scores at school B revealed that 17% of students were identified as gifted and talented, and 16% had scores low enough to be eligible for compensatory education. 18% of the students at school B entered the eighth grade below grade level in reading, with a corresponding 12% in math. Finally, less than 5% of the students at school B were identified as being in need of some form of special education.
Of the twenty eight students who participated in the study at school B, seventeen were white (eight boys and nine girls), four were Asian American (three girls and one boy) and five were African American students (two boys and three girls). The students have access to a variety of elective courses that are offered at the school B including: Spanish, French, computers, art, music, dance and health education. Four sections of algebra and one class of honors geometry is offered to students who are deemed qualified. Only 15% of the students at school B are qualified to receive free or reduced lunch, and according to the principal, the PTSA (Parent, Teacher, Student Association) annually raised over $100,000 during the previous year to support field trips and other educational activities at the school.
Despite the relative affluence of the school, the families it serves, and the community in which it is located, concerns about the threat of violence are high here also. In interviews with teachers and administrators several expressed concerns and uncertainty about what they described as a "climate of violence". While the source of this threat was difficult to pin down, the sentiments expressed by this eighth grade English teacher captured some of the anxiety that was conveyed to me:
The attitudes of the children have changed. They use harsher language with each other when they argue, and when they fight, you'd think they wanted to kill each other. Its not a place where kids are carrying guns or anything, but something's different about kids today, and to me its a lot more scary.(Interview 4/7/93)
Mirroring the national trends previously described, the teachers concerns about violence are not matched by empirical evidence. Only two weapons (one knife and one club) were confiscated from students at school B over a three year period. During the 1992-'93 school year thirty-six students were suspended and four students were expelled. The police were called to the school on two occasions for violent incidents at school during the same period (both incidents involved students from other schools). There are five security guards at school B, an additional guard having been hired in the 1991-'92 school year in response to heightened concerns about security. Interstingly, all five of the security guards are African American males, and they are the only African American males other than the custodian who are employed at the school.
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