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Volume 17, Number 3
May/June 2001

Talking to Parents About Violence


What can K-12 administrators and teachers do to get parents involved in defusing violence at school? We put that question to Cornell University professor and child-violence expert James Garbarino, author of Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Save Them. Garbarino's forthcoming book, Parents Under Siege (written with Claire Bedard, Free Press, September 2001), includes insights gleaned from his conversations with the parents of Columbine High School killer Dylan Klebold. In talking to parents, says Garbarino, "The big challenge is to mobilize energy for change without creating hysteria or alarm." Here's his advice:

  • Speak to parents about why the school engages in character education. Explain that an important part of violence prevention is creating a better school climate, where administrators, teachers, and students show more respect for each other.
  • Explain what crisis plans are in place.
  • Tell parents what mental-health services are available to children both now and in the event something happens, provided such services are offered, of course.
  • Make clear that you are open to hearing what kids say [at home] about the school climate, and that you will respond in a therapeutic way. The FBI report on school shooters identifies the fact that kids with homicidal or suicidal intentions almost always telegraph those intentions ahead of time time to someone, most often a peer. Some schools have an "anonymous" box where students can leave notes about things they've heard. Of course, under many zero-tolerance policies this can backfire because people think you're asking them to turn each other in, and the policy becomes zero tolerance of kids rather than behavior. The hardest and most important thing is to communicate complete acceptance of each child while at the same time acting to deal with dangerous behavior.
  • Reassure parents that you have the intention and resources to follow up . . . that if they speak to school administrators or teachers about a problem, some action is going to be taken.
  • Communicate accurate information about school violence. It's actually quite rare, but sometimes we create hysteria by focusing on the sensational stories. At the same time, it's important to let parents know that there are other kinds of behavior such as harassment and bullying that, if left unchecked, can escalate.

When speaking to parents of children with problem behavior:

  • Point to examples where you have responded a similar problem in a caring, therapeutic way. Still, you have to recognize that not all parents will respond. Some don't think they or the school should get involved in certain matters—that with bullying, for instance—kids should sort it out themselves. Emphasize that even low-level harassment can lead to more serious incidents.
  • Help parents realize it's normal for kids to have secret lives and behaviors—and that they're not bad parents if they don't know everything their kids are doing. That places their children's behavior in a context that they can understand and makes the discussion less threatenting. At Cornell, we surveyed students about what secrets they kept from their parents. About 27 % of the males admitted to stealing money from their parents at some point and about 70 % of those said their parents never found out about it. Some 32% of the females said they had considered suicide, and that 87% of their parents did not know.
  • Once you've explained the problem at school, give parents time to think about it. Don't turn the first discussion into a confrontation. Lay it out for them and say, "Let's talk about it in a few days." That's less threatening and gives parents a chance to come back to the table with a possible solution in mind. It also gives them a chance to talk to their kids about it. You might give them a pamplet or booklet that would help them do that if it seems appropriate.

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