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Reason Foundation

Strategies to Keep Schools Safe

Policy Study 234

Alexander Volokh and Lisa Snell
January 1, 1998

Introduction

School violence is a serious problem, especially in public schools. Improving the quality of American education is difficult without also addressing school violence, since regardless of how good the teachers or curriculum are, violence makes it difficult for students to learn.

School violence wears many faces. It includes gang activity, locker thefts, bullying and intimidation, gun use, assault—just about anything that produces a victim. Violence is perpetrated against students, teachers, and staff, and ranges from intentional vendettas to accidental killings of bystanders. Often, discussions of school violence are lumped together with discussions of school discipline generally, as both involve questions of how to maintain order in a school.

We divide school violence-prevention methods into three classes—measures related to school management (that is, related to discipline and punishment), measures related to environmental modification (for instance, video cameras, security guards, and uniforms), and educational and curriculum-based measures (for instance, conflict-resolution and gang-prevention programs). All methods have their advantages and disadvantages.

Our research leads us to the following conclusions:

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. As William Modzeleski of the U.S. Department of Education put it, "There is no one program, no silver bullet, so that you can get one program up and say, Here it is if you put this program in your school, you are going to resolve violence." If all schools were the same, in demographically similar neighborhoods, with similar crime rates in the surrounding community, with similar-quality teachers and similarly committed staffs, and similar budgetary constraints, then we could feel safe advocating a common policy for all schools. But schools are self-evidently not like that. The ideal violence-prevention policy will likely be different for each school.

For most anti-violence interventions, evidence of effectiveness is either sparse or mixed. Many programs have been imperfectly monitored or evaluated, so few data on results exist. Those programs that have been monitored work in some cases and not in other cases.

Yet programs that "don't work" in some overall sense may work at individual schools. Every case study of an anti-violence program that works at some school should be an individual cause for rejoicing, even if we wouldn't want to mandate that same program everywhere. Since programs work in some places and not in others, the only reasonable agenda for fighting school violence is to encourage individual schools to experiment and to find what "works" in their particular circumstances.

As in any field, out of the many hot, new solutions, some are real, and some are unsubstantiated fads. Moreover, since school violence research is sparse and mixed and since there are so many variables that it is even difficult to recognize success or failure-the most reliable way of distinguishing between the real and the faddish is to subject individual schools, in their experimentation, to the discipline of competition. Schools choose their anti-violence programs; parents choose their children's schools.

Many traditional anti-violence remedies, mostly those related to discipline and punishment, have been limited at public schools, either legislatively or judicially (through constitutional interpretation). This is not because these methods should not be used at schools at all if parents choose their children's school, they should be able to delegate authority to schools to use discipline measures, up to and including corporal punishment. But these methods have been limited at public schools because the government must provide safeguards against the abuse of its power in circumstances where education is compulsory and attendance at specific schools is mandatory. These safeguards involve notice and hearing requirements and other procedural roadblocks to punishment—all necessary, given the mandatory and monopoly nature of the service, but all making it difficult for schools to effectively choose a disciplinarian approach. These constraints on public schools may be one reason why private schools have less violence than public schools, and it may be one reason to encourage private schools as educational providers.

This paper concludes with a discussion of what some private schools are doing, including the results of our interviews with principals of several Catholic schools. We further suggest that compulsory education laws may be contributing to violence in public schools.

Our general conclusion is to encourage innovation and experimentation in schools through decentralization and deregulation. Incentives matter, so effectively addressing school violence must include some level of parental choice, and an emphasis on private, voluntary, contractual methods rather than compulsory ones.


Alexander Volokh is Associate Professor of Law

Lisa Snell is Director of Education

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