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Curbing school violence

Researchers say that ‘zero tolerance’ policies are ineffective

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PROVO — School violence policies like "zero tolerance" and "three strikes you're out" may not be the most effective way to curb violence, according to a study by Brigham Young University and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee researchers.

In a paper published in the current edition of the journal Scholar and Educator, the researchers suggest that some current approaches may thwart individual acts of violence temporarily but don't address the root of the problem — teaching children how to deal with emotions and handle anger.

"Rather than being angry at people for what they don't know, we should practice the solution — teaching," said BYU researcher Lynn Wilder. "Have hope that they can change and that they want to change."

The researchers suggest violence instead be handled via "soft" programs that develop emotional intelligence.

Despite the sound of the program title, Wilder said soft programs do not excuse violence nor remove consequences for violent behavior. Instead, they are intended to look beneath the behavior to find out why the acts are occurring.

In Utah, elements of this approach are already in place. Verne Larsen, the safe and drug-free schools liaison for the Utah State Office of Education, said his office focuses on helping the perpetrators of violence as well as keeping schools safe.

"We don't just want to kick them out and be done with them, but we want to some way help them so they don't do it again," Larsen said. "Besides holding kids accountable and making sure our schools are safe, we need to help the students themselves. I don't think some of the 'no tolerance' policies are really geared to help the kid."

Jordan School District Assistant Superintendant Cal Evans said that while federal guidelines mandate suspending students for certain infractions, he doesn't think that policy really helps decrease school violence.

"I think that a one-size-fits-all approach is not particularly effective," Evans said. "I don't think that mandating 180-day suspensions is the silver bullet to anything, and I really don't think that suspension is the thing that is decreasing violence in the schools. It's the array of positive behavior supports."

Evans said Jordan really doesn't expel students, preferring instead to suspend students when necessary and provide counseling to get them back in school.

"We have to be offering programs to these students that enable us to work with them and bring them back into the school environment and be productive citizens," he said.

In Utah County, both the Provo and Alpine school districts say they try to focus on the individual, and avoid expulsion whenever possible.

"If you throw a student out of school, you're throwing him into the streets, and then society has to deal with him," said Greg Hudnall, Provo School District student services director. "So what we want to do is provide appropriate consequences and then support for that behavior."

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee researcher Ian Harris said after the problems with school violence in the '90s, some schools shifted to a "get tough" approach, which may curb some problems but can also ultimately hurt students.

"The hard approaches aren't working, they're just alienating a lot of kids from school," Harris said. "They might be creating safe school environments, but the kids who are at risk are being marginalized and pushed out."

Wilder said behavioral concerns have been pushed aside because of the academic focus forced by No Child Left Behind, the Bush administration's education-reform policy that requires schools in all states to post yearly gains in exams or face sanctions.

"With what we call high-stakes testing now, schools are very, very academically focused," she said. "Because of No Child Left Behind, there kind of isn't a place right now for these issues in schools. They feel like they should focus only on academics, and if parents don't teach kids those things, well, it's tough."

Larsen said he thinks schools need to be a place where students learn in a variety of ways.

"If we don't help kids with some of the character development and social competency skills, and just focus on the academics, we're leaving half of our kids behind," he said.

Wilder said Utah schools should start addressing social issues now, before they are coping with assimilating a growing number of students from other cultures.

"Here in Utah, we have large groups of immigrant populations coming from another culture, and so some of those social skill teachings are really critical to their success in our society," she said. "The stats in Utah look like Utah's doing pretty well, ACT-wise and test score-wise. But if you look across socioeconomic groups, or minority groups, you're going to find huge differences."

E-mail: mdecker@desnews.com