SCHOOL VIOLENCE: PARTNERSHIPS WITH FAMILIES FOR SCHOOL REFORM
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School Violence: Partnerships with Families for School Reform Families can facilitate schools if they reorganize to develop violence prevention and reduction programs. Partnerships between school personnel and family members, including the students themselves, can work to bring about a non-violent school environment. School personnel require knowledge to engage families as partners from a strengths perspective. Information and strategies are provided for school personnel as they enhance family strengths and work with families to create non-violent atmospheres in schools.
Key Words: School violence; family partnerships; strengths perspective
Violence in schools has become an issue of public concern in the United States. School violence has been singled out nationally as a priority for education (Astor, et al., 1998, p. 230) School violence has been defined as including a range of behaviors, from disrespect to physical assault to physical assault (Alexander and Curtis, 1995). Violence affects school aged children to a greater extent than any other segment of our population. de Anda reports that violence has an impact on adolescents more than any other age group (de Anda, 1999). In response to concerns about violence, schools have developed a variety of strategies and programs.
School reform, in regard to issues of violence, may or may not involve the families of students. When families are involved in school programs geared toward reducing or preventing school violence, their involvement is often peripheral. The literature reports few school violence programs which place the family as a centerpiece in their strategy to reduce violence. A study of school social workers and school violence, found that although the profession of social work values an approach which would involve family and community, "few school social workers reported being involved with parent groups" (Astor, et al., 1998, p. 230).
Attempts to develop strategies to deal with school violence can be facilitated by the partnership of school personnel and family. Knowledge about strategies for family participation are advantageous to school based personnel working with violence issues. Peterson and Speaker (1999) suggest that as schools reorganize to deal with student violence, "a key element in this reorganization is the recognition that schools will need to incorporate not only an academic focus for the student, but include the family within the educational structure" (1999, p. 15).
Within this article, engagement of families and the partnership of school personnel and family will be discussed in addressing school reform for violence issues. School violence does not occur in a vacuum. It is complicated by numerous variables in the aggressive student's life. An approach, in which schools work with families to prevent and respond to school violence, is more likely to deal successfully with the many factors contributing to violent behavior.
Engaging the Family
Engaging family members in the school setting involves the consideration of several issues. School personnel may have preconceived ideas about family participation. If families are to become involved in a partnership with school personnel, they must be viewed from a strengths perspective. Both school personnel and family members have information, knowledge, and experience to contribute to the process of developing programs for their students and children. Families bring with them the wealth of years of knowing their children. Their involvement in the development of strategies to prevent violence in their child's school could provide a perspective that school personnel may not have.
Other families whose children are aggressive or violent within the school system may also have contributions to make. These families have information needed by school personnel concerning their children. They know, better than anyone, what kinds of strategies work or do not work with their children. These families carry with them information about how their families work. This information is necessary to teachers, school social workers, and family life specialists. Szyndrowski (1999) notes that, "research suggests family interaction patterns and parental discipline practices strongly affect the development of aggressive child behaviors" (1999, p. 9). Curwin and Mendler (1999) emphasize the importance of school personnel familiarizing themselves with the unique factors and various circumstances which can lead to school violence. Knowledge about these unique factors, including family interaction patterns and parental discipline can best be provided to the school by family members. Engagement of these families is more likely to occur if school personnel recognize that these families are survivors. These families may have dealt with difficult situations for a number of years, yet one or more parents have continued to stay involved with his or her child. Respect for these parents is a precipitator for their engagement with the school. Without them, useful information about how to work with their children will be lost.
One factor which may discourage school programs from engaging parents in anti-violence programs are perceptions of danger in relation to parent contact and home visits. Aster, et al. (1998) found that 74% of the school social workers they surveyed perceived visiting students' homes as dangerous. Teachers and family life educators may also have safety concerns about meeting with parents and other family members. Discussion with other school personnel regarding the validity of these concerns, and, when appropriate, visiting homes or meeting with parents as a team is one solution to this perceived problem.
By the time a child enters his or her second week of school, every parent has had some interaction with school personnel. These experiences, over the years, combine to give families a framework through which they view the school. Families, whose student members have had good experiences with school personnel, are more likely to become readily involved when invited. Families, or their student members who have been treated as a problem by school personnel, are more likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The extent of willingness on the part of school personnel to work with families will influence the families' motivation to participate. Families' conceptions about the school will influence their desire to become involved.
Families and School Personnel as Partners
Family involvement in the development of violence prevention and reduction programs can contribute to the success of those programs. Parents, siblings and grandparents working as team members along with school personnel send a message their family members who are students. Their participation makes a statement about their belief regarding the importance of school and of nonviolent behavior. Their knowledge, life experiences, and diverse perspectives can add to the knowledge and experiences of school personnel.
Partnerships to Facilitate Family Strengths.
School personnel can also work with family members to enhance family strengths. Family life educators, school counselors, and school social workers can provide parenting information to work toward prevention and reduction of school violence. White and Beal (1999) suggest that there are similarities between students who do not engage in violence, including a "positive family environment," and parents with expectations and standards (1999, p. 34). Jackson and Foshee (1998) found that children who perceive their parents as setting clear guidelines and structure, and as caring and supporting them, were significantly less likely to engage in violent behavior with peers. School personnel can provide parenting education, that will facilitate parents in setting clear limits and in supporting their children. This information can be shared with parents of children at every grade level.
Studies have examined the amount of violence children watch on television and its relationship with violent behavior (Lazar, 1998; Nathanson, 1999) while other studies have investigated the influence of family violence on children (Davies, 1991; Jouriles, 1998; Das Eiden, 1999). School personnel can educate families about the danger of violence in a child's life as well as refer family members to appropriate service providers. The following case example illustrates how, working together, school personnel and families can begin to change situations and behaviors which can lead to violence.
Jeffrey Dawson was a 16-year-old sophomore at a small, rural high school. He was suspended from school on two occasions during the current academic year. Each suspension resulted from fights, which school administrators believed Jeffrey had instigated. On both occasions, Jeffrey became angry and began hitting another student.
Students reported that they felt threatened by Jeffrey when he returned from his second suspension. They could not specify particular behaviors that frightened them, however, they said that Jeffrey seemed so angry that they did not know what he would do.
Teachers reported that Jeffrey frequently made angry comments in class. Teachers expressed concerns that Jeffrey was volatile and several feared that he might do damage to another student or to the school. Several teachers said that Jeffrey was a problem and should be expelled if his angry comments continued.
In a meeting between Jeffrey's teachers, the vice principal, and the school social worker, the social worker reported that six months ago, Jeffrey's father had left the family. His father had not been contributing child support and his mother was reluctant to use formal resources to meet the family's needs. Jeffrey's father had had no contact with him after he left home.
Jeffrey is an only child. In previous academic years, his grades were good and he related well to other students and teachers: Jeffrey's mother told the school social worker that she had had difficulty disciplining him since his father left. She reported her belief that he was angry with his father.
The school personnel decided to request a meeting with Jeffrey's mother to discuss her concerns as well as theirs. At the meeting, Jeffrey's mother provided insights about Jeffrey, which his teachers had not had previously. She revealed that Jeffrey's father had abused him throughout his life. She said that until his father left home, Jeffrey had never been able to bring friends home. His mother reported that until this year, Jeffrey had been withdrawn and lonely. He had never had many friends.
At the meeting, the school social worker stated her impression that Jeffrey had been depressed for some time. Teachers commented on Jeffrey's intelligence, but said he had quit completing assigned work and was in danger of failing his courses. Jeffrey's mother and school personnel agreed that Jeffrey should see a therapist. In addition, the family life specialist, school social worker and Jeffrey's mother agreed to meet to discuss parenting approaches. Jeffrey's teachers stated that the information they had received had helped them to have a better understanding about his situation. They said they would work to support Jeffrey and to encourage him in the classroom, while setting clear limits. It was agreed that the consequence for angry verbal behavior, which appeared to be threatening, was to be in-school suspension. If Jeffrey got into another fight, he would be sent to an alternative school program for one week. It was decided that the school social worker would talk with Jeffrey and invite him to participate in a weekly group she led for adolescent boys at the school.
Jeffrey's mother has reported that while Jeffrey's behavior is still difficult, she feels more confident in setting limits for him and in talking with him about his feelings regarding his father. Jeffrey has attended and participated in the weekly group. He has also begun to meet with a therapist. Teachers have reported that Jeffrey's appears to be less angry in class. Although his academic work is better, there is room for improvement.
Families as Co-Developers of Non-Violence Programs
Some schools have involved parents in working toward reducing or preventing violence. Banks (2000) reports on a successful middle school program, which relies on teamwork between the school, family, and the community. In this middle school program, parents are a vital part of the school's fight against violence. "Parents can be seen at all times in nearly all areas of the school; they attend conferences, speak to classes, substitute, and volunteer" (Banks, 2000, p. 210).
Inclusion of family members in the development of violence prevention and reduction must be more than nominal. As school reform, it should include "the entire family in the scope of the educational setting" (Peterson and Speaker, 1999:15). In a study which examined the perceptions of mothers concerning contributors to school violence, Kandakai et al. (1999) found that the mothers they studied, and especially urban mothers, expressed concern about the lack of parental-teacher communication as a contributor to school violence. Kandakai et al. (1999) concluded that "schools overall, but particularly urban schools, should seek avenues to foster more positive parent/school and parent/teacher relations" (p. 193).
As participants within the school system and as family members, students can, and should, be engaged in the process of creating a non-violent school environment. Jenkins (1991) reports on the success of involving student orientations in a school violence reduction program. Duper (1995) stresses the need for school social workers to reduce school violence by "developing school-based programs that involve peers and teachers and adult mentors who take an active interest in students who are behaviorally at risk." (p. 72)
As with other family members, students can be agents of change within the school setting. The more students are invested in the process of creating a non-violent atmosphere, the more their potential to avoid violence themselves, at school and at home. Engaging students as partners is another building block in the foundation of non-violence.
Resources for Families, Students and Schools
Numerous resources exist for teachers, family life education specialists, school social workers, and family members when working with potentially angry or violent students. Many schools have utilized conflict resolution materials to deal with violence between students. For example, the Cleveland Public Schools Center for Conflict Resolution incorporates W. A. V. E. Conflict Resolution Program (Winning Against Violent Environments) which is one of the oldest peer mediation programs in the country. This program provides a three-day training session for students and faculty advisors (Close and Lechman, 1997). The program has proposed working with parents to teach them conflict resolutions skills to use in the home in order to support non-violent problem solving. Parents can be encouraged to be trained in conflict resolution and can work with faculty to train students in peer mediation.
Bringing parents into the process of creating a non-violent atmosphere in the school setting can also function as a means to gain their commitment in non-violent solutions to problems. Parents can learn from other parents, as well as from school personnel, and hopefully, the lessons learned will be applied at home.
Social workers and school counselors can use books such as Potter-Efron and Potter-Efron's (1995) Letting Go of Anger to facilitate students and their parents in examining their own anger and dealing with it. Parents can be encouraged to read books such as Lott and Intner's (1997) Chores Without Wars to work toward setting limits and reducing aggressive behavior within the family.
Family life specialists and school social workers can implement parenting groups in which parents work together to discuss issues surrounding students' aggressive behaviors. Groups can also be formed among siblings to help deal with violent behavior they have witnessed or participated in among themselves. Grandparents are often involved in the parenting process and can become positive partners with school personnel.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Violence in schools has become a national educational issue. As school personnel work to create non-violent school environments, partnerships with families can enhance the change process. The engagement of family members as partners is benefited by a strengths' perspective on the part of school personnel. School personnel who work with family members to bring about change in a violent student will find that families can contribute knowledge about how best to approach the students. Families and students can also become team members in the development of programs for violence prevention and reduction.
While the literature reports some programs, which include family members, the family is seldom cited as the centerpiece for school reform in the area of school violence. More research is needed on the effectiveness of school programs for non-violence (Farrell and Meyer, 1997), as well as on parental involvement in violence prevention and reduction programs (Jackson and Foshee, 1998).
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