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Volume 17, Number 1
January/February 2001

“We Don't Allow That Here”

In an effort to stem student violence, schools experiment with ways to improve school safety


The shootings at Columbine High School in April 1999 focused national attention on the problem of school violence and sent many districts scrambling for ways to upgrade their school safety programs. The Cherry Creek District in Englewood, CO, already had a set of strategies to promote school safety that included its own anti-bullying program, which has become a national model. In the aftermath of Columbine, Cherry Creek school psychologist Larry Epstein heard one of his elementary school students saying, "What happened at Columbine couldn't happen here, because everyone has a friend." To Epstein, that student's perception of security—and her indirect reference to the school's effort to build caring relationships—was the best endorsement the Cherry Creek program could have.

At a time when many schools have answered concerns about school violence with metal detectors and zero-tolerance policies, most experts agree that, although get-tough measures are sometimes warranted, the best approach to dealing with violence is the kind Cherry Creek is taking: to promote mental health and solid skills—academic and social—and to provide early intervention for students who are struggling in those areas.

Media coverage of tragedies like Columbine leaves the false impression that schools are becoming killing grounds. In fact, homicides on school property are rare, accounting for less than one percent of children's deaths, according to the U.S. Department of Education's 1999 Report on School Safety. Still, violence of a lesser degree has become nearly commonplace. According to the 2000 National Study of School Environment and Problem Behavior funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, 32 percent of highschoolers and 41 percent of middle school students admitted to hitting or threatening to hit another student in the previous year. In middle schools, 19 percent of students said they had been victims of physical attacks that year, while 10 percent of high school students reported the same.

What can schools do? Researchers from the Hamilton Fish Institute of School and Community Violence, located at George Washington University and funded primarily by the U.S. Department of Justice, reviewed some 900 studies of school violence-prevention programs to determine which had the most positive impact on student behavior. The dozen most successful programs shared several characteristics, says Hamilton Fish researcher Paul Kingery. In general, they

  • take place over time, rather than in a few short lessons, so that they're integrated into school life;
  • take place in workshop rather than lecture format so that students can learn with and teach each other, perhaps with culturally relevant music and images;
  • focus on teaching specific skills, such as diffusing an argument or expressing angry feelings with words, and provide students the opportunity to practice those skills;
  • give students feedback from adults and peers on their performance.

The following curricula are examples of antiviolence programs. They offer a variety of strategies: one aims to eliminate bullying behavior, one focuses on conflict resolution, and a third targets at-risk kindergarten students for early intervention.

Bully-Proofing Your School

Bully-Proofing Your School, developed by the Cherry Creek School District, is a prevention tool that aims to enhance overall school climate and provide students with specific skills to stand up to bullies. The program, which was featured at last year's American Psychological Association convention, focuses on the large majority of students who are neither bullies nor victims but who, with guidance, can become a "caring majority" that asserts itself, says Cherry Creek's director of student achievement, Bill Porter. Students learn to support victims of bullying and to care about others by including them in friendships and activities. In doing so, this caring majority strips a small minority of bullies of its power to intimidate.

Bully-proofing is now required for all students in grades K-8. Students get five to eight classroom lessons from mental-health professionals or teachers that give victims or witnesses of bullying strategies for action; the lessons vary according to developmental level. The program also includes training for all staff in how to respond to reports of bullying.

With younger children, facilitators focus on defining bullying and on the difference between tattling and telling. "That's scary for kids," says Larry Epstein. "They think they'll be bullied if they tell. But we're creating an environment where it's okay to tell. It's their responsibility." Students also learn a mnemonic—HA HA SO—to help remember the bully-proofing principles: Help, Assert yourself; Humor, Avoid; and Self-talk, Own it. Posters around the school remind them of these methods.

Older students practice ways of confronting bullies peacefully, saying things like, "We don't allow that in our school." They are encouraged to seek adult help, for themselves or for others, when bullying takes place, and they are taught to include all students in school activities.

Since bullying can take the form of exclusion, not just intimidation, any good program should address the impact of cliques, says Beth Doll, associate professor of school psychology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. "[Exclusion is] the second dimension of school violence. Kids need to feel like part of the community." At Cherry Creek, Bully-Proofing Your School helps break up exclusive cliques. "We talked in classroom groups about how cliques derive their power from excluding others and [about] what we really want in friends," says Epstein. "I've seen some girls, particularly those who tended to be perpetually on the fringes of the group, start to make other choices about friendships."

Responding in Peaceful and Positive Ways

Teaching students conflict-resolution skills in school is another way to address the risk of violence. In Richmond, VA, high school principal Howard Hopkins says his district's program, Responding in Peaceful and Positive Ways (RIPP), has improved the school climate: "We have fewer discipline referrals, fewer fights. Recently, I was able to leave two students who wanted to fight alone in my office. I told them I'd be back in 15 minutes and would let them resolve it themselves. They did. I'm not sure I would have left them alone before we had RIPP in place."
The Richmond schools developed RIPP in 1991 together with city behavioral-health officials and researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Recent research, funded in part by the federal Centers for Disease Control, shows that 6th-grade RIPP participants in three of the city's middle schools had lower rates of disciplinary referrals for violent offenses and lower overall rates of in-school suspensions than students in the no-treatment control group, according to project director Albert Farrell of VCU.

Classroom sessions teach children approaches to avoiding violence. These include not only techniques for resolving conflict, but also ways to assess when it makes more sense and is safer to avoid, ignore, or diffuse conflict. "There are a lot of situations in these kids' lives where it could be a bad idea for them to try to talk it out," says Aleta Meyer, project codirector and assistant professor of psychology at VCU. "We have to teach kids that there are a lot of options. Having more options makes them more powerful."

Senior violence-prevention specialist Christopher Moore says he and other program facilitators spend about 45 minutes each week in 6th-grade classrooms. During that time, the students practice their skills with role-play, work together in groups, and discuss alternatives for real-life situations they've faced.

In addition to in-class instruction, Moore runs a peer-mediation program for older students in which students learn to act as neutral, third-party arbiters in disputes, and he makes himself available for one-on-one counseling and discussion with students.

First Step to Success

While conflict-resolution education works best when aimed at all students, the First Step to Success program—one of those cited by the Hamilton Fish Institute as especially effective—targets individual kindergarten students showing early signs of antisocial behavior. "The overall goal of First Step is to help at-risk children get off to the best possible start in school and to keep them from taking an antisocial path in their school careers and lives," says program developer Hill Walker, co-director of the Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior at the University of Oregon. Formal program evaluations showed effective and lasting improvements in both behavior and social adjustment, notes Walker. Students' aggressive and maladaptive behavior decreased, while adaptive behavior and academically engaged time increased.

Consider the case of Tyler. From his first days in kindergarten at Little Axe Elementary School in Norman, OK, he stood out. He seemed to bounce "like a pinball" from one activity to the next, unable to focus, recalls teacher Mary Callies: "He was real sweet. He'd jump up to help someone else with their work, but he wouldn't get his own done." In another school, Tyler's behavior might have led straight to an ADHD diagnosis. But a class-wide screening at Little Axe found he was a good candidate for the First Step intervention.

This highly structured program involves the teacher, parents, and a coordinator—often a counselor or school psychologist—and targets one child at a time for a period of about three months. After a screening process, the coordinator approaches the child's parents first and tells them it looks like their child could use help getting off to the right start in school. Most parents give their consent, and about 75 percent of parents participate in the in-home component. At school, the coordinator provides one-on-one feedback and support to the child. Later, the teacher takes over, telling the child by way of a red or green card whether his or her behavior should stop or continue. The child receives frequent feedback and positive reinforcement on a strict schedule. In addition, the child earns points toward special rewards at school and home through classroom activities and games in which other children help the child succeed for the benefit of the whole class.

The home sessions "teach parents skills under the rubric of teaching their child school success," says Walker, which encourages parents to "share school" with their kids. These sessions help parents communicate with their children about school, build their confidence, set appropriate limits, and teach cooperation, problem-solving, and friendship skills. The program coordinator provides parents with activity cards that suggest five-minute games to play with their children each night in support of the lessons. When children's parents won't participate (usually, they say, because of time constraints) or can't (because of illiteracy, language barriers, or personal problems), schools find "surrogates" at school who can play the parent's role with the child, according to Annemieke Golly, First Step to Success project director.

"I think the program is pretty wonderful," says Little Axe teacher Callies. "As we went along it got to where Tyler could finish his work and listen to a story without poking those around him." Best of all, she adds, other children's behavior improved as well. "I realized that because I was giving Tyler so much positive feedback all the time, I also gave more to other children. Overall, I think it was a happier classroom because of First Step."

Choosing a Program

Bully-Proofing Your School, Responding in Peaceful and Positive Ways, and First Step to Success are among the dozens of programs schools might choose as part of a comprehensive safe-school effort. In order to find programs with good track records that match school and community needs, administrators should undergo a "needs-assessment process," says Carlos Sundermann, program director of the National Resource Center for Safe Schools.

Anonymous student surveys are one way to jump-start the needs-assessment process, he says. Surveys, such as the one available on the Hamilton Fish Institute's website, provide violent-incident reports as well as information about students' attitudes and coping mechanisms-potentially helpful clues as to which solution might work best. For example, if student surveys reveal a high incidence of physical fighting but low incidence of weapon carrying, the school would probably benefit more from a conflict-resolution program than from one stressing tough penalties for bringing guns to school.

In addition to information gleaned from surveys, educators should consider the results of teacher, parent, and community focus groups. They should also review school records (attendance, referrals, suspensions, and expulsions) and community data (census information and police beat records). A thorough examination of existing violence-prevention programs in the school and community may also provide guidance.

What else should schools look for? Nan Stein, senior researcher at Wellesley College's Center for Research on Women and author of anti-bullying programs for elementary students, suggests that programs should include training for any personnel having student contact, including bus drivers, cafeteria staff, and administrators; enthusiastic administrative backing, including any policy changes necessary to support program goals; and more than just punitive reactions to bullying. She adds that schools need to find multiple ways of talking to kids about bullying and should emphasize the role of the bystander. Stein also suggests that schools facilitate parental attendance at anti-bullying meetings by providing free child care and food.

Schools should aim to develop a comprehensive, whole-school strategy. "Conflict resolution programs aren't just about conflict anymore," says Michael Van Slyck, coordinator of the Conflict Resolution in Educational Settings Project at the State University of New York at Albany. "The whole point is to teach a problem-solving approach to life." In other words, changing a school's culture in ways that also aid student learning and achievement is the surest way to keep the peace.

Karen Pirozzi is a writer and school psychologist based in Albany, NY.

Also by this Author

For Further Information

For Further Information

I.H. Derson and S. Wilson. "An Empirical Review of School Based Programs to Reduce Violence." Washington, DC: Hamilton Fish Institute of School and Community Violence, November, 1999.

K. Dwyer, D. Osher, and C. Warger. "Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools." Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 1998.

K. Dwyer and D. Osher. "Safeguarding Our Children: An Action Guide." Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 2000.

C. Garrity, K. Jens, W. Porter, N. Sager, C. Short-Camilli. Bullyproofing Your Elementary School. Longmont, CO: Sopris West, 1998.

A.L. Meyer, A.D. Farrell, and W.B. Northrup. Promoting Nonviolence in Early Adolescence: Responding in Peaceful and Positive Ways. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum, 2000.

National Association of School Psychologists, 4340 East West Highway, Suite 402, Bethesda, MD 20814.

National Resource Center for Safe Schools, 101 SW Main, Suite 500, Portland, OR 97204.

N. Stein. Bullyproof: A Teacher's Guide on Teasing and Bullying for Use with Fourth and Fifth Grade Students. Washington, DC: National Education Association, 1998.

H.M. Walker, K. Kavanagh, B. Stiller, A. Golly, H.H. Severson, and E.G. Feil. "First Step to Success: An Early Intervention Approach for Preventing School Antisocial Behavior." Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders 6, no. 2 (Summer 1998): 66-80.

First Step to Success Program, Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior, 1265 University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403.

1999 Annual Report on School Safety. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 1999.