Zero tolerance of bullies

May 21, 1999|By Andrew Ratner

PRESIDENT Clinton's recent summit on youth violence focused on how movies and television glorify violence and on how easily guns can be purchased.

While these are logical contributors to youth violence, little attention was paid to the daily violence itself that is overlooked in the nation's schools.

Our schools regularly allow many children to be harassed, intimidated and even beaten by their peers without intervening. Too often, parents of bullies, educators and others look the other way.

The series of school shootings -- including one yesterday in suburban Atlanta that injured six people -- should spur schools to be committed to a "zero-tolerance" policy on aggression.

Brutes in the schoolyard are as old as Cain, but the problem is worsening by many measures.

In a recent survey by Who's Who Among American High School Students, young people said peer pressure and parental apathy are major contributors to anarchy in their schools. Illegal drugs, cited as the leading cause of violence in 1981, is now at the bottom of the list.

The poll's respondents were more likely than past students to say that their schools are dangerous.

Some good news from the poll: In 1992, 26 percent of students said they owned or had access to a handgun, compared with a still-frightening 15 percent in 1996.

In a University of Michigan study, about one-fifth of high school seniors surveyed reported that they had been physically threatened, about half with a weapon. And high school students suffered less abuse than those in middle school, with sixth grade the worst.

Suspensions are up

In Maryland, the State Board of Education's analysis of anti-social behavior is frightening. Suspensions are up by one-third over the past six years, with physical attacks between students one of the fastest growing areas.

Problems were evident in all types of communities. U.S. Justice Department statistics show that children enrolled in public suburban schools are about as likely to be victims of all types of crime as their peers in urban and rural districts: 138 per 1,000 students in the suburbs, 131 per 1,000 in cities.

In affluent Montgomery County, which boasts some of the state's best schools, 816 students were suspended for carrying dangerous weapons during the past school year. In Baltimore, 9,000 students were kicked out of school for fighting, 950 for attacking teachers, 252 for sex offenses. Baltimore County led in insubordination with 8,765 suspensions for disrespect and disruption. In rural Somerset County, nearly a fifth of the student body was suspended during the year for such actions.

The statistics offer hope that schools are cracking down on the bullies that roam the hallways. But the numbers also suggest a brutish culture that's festered too long.

"We are seeing an increase in incivility, in-your-face behavior, fighting with other kids, habitual disrespect," says Lynn E. Linde, chief of pupil support services for the State Board of Education. She singles out Prince George's County for praise as a system that takes a "no-nonsense" stance toward youthful aggression, with a tough-love combination of stiff punishment and classes to help students learn to control anger.

Perhaps my reaction is overly cynical, but local school officials' actions after the Littleton, Colo., shooting last month, which left 12 students and a teacher dead, seem motivated by fear of being caught unaware by an agitated public and media more than by a zeal to change the culture in their schools. No administrator wants to be second-guessed about why he didn't know of a trench coat underworld or other bizarre actions.

Consider the Anne Arundel County principal who immediately disciplined a boy who waved a paper gun. The principal hadn't reacted so quickly to halt a larger classmate from repeatedly assaulting that boy.

Schools must create environments where no child dreads to go, fearing he will be intimidated or ridiculed. Educators can't notice every punch or put down, but they must be more attuned to incivility and less tolerant of it.

Such brutality would be forbidden, even illegal, in a workplace of adults.

It should not be overlooked in schools simply because the workers there happen to be children.

Andrew Ratner is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 5/21/99

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