White House Plugs in to Youth Workers for School Violence Remedies

Bill Alexander
July 1, 1998

Is it a case of life imitating "art," such as the violence-drenched "South Central" cartoon show, when a teenager yanks a blazing gun about wildly and cuts down victims in Anyschool, USA? Why are the ages of kid killers getting younger and younger? Why are single-victim, school-related shootings transitioning into multiple-victim slaughters?

"I don't think any country not at war has ever had to deal with this problem. New forms of youth violence, like an infectious disease, keep emerging," says Mark Rosenberg of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rosenberg — along with youth workers, educators, and youth violence experts from government agencies, universities and foundations around the country — was summoned to the White House in April for two unpublicized "roundtable" discussions on school violence. The first was co-chaired by Attorney General Janet Reno and Education Secretary Richard Riley, the second by President Clinton.

"Over the last 10 to 15 years, the average age of the perpetrator of youth violence has decreased for all youth homicides," says Rosenberg, director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. "This new problem of kids killing kids in school-associated multiple-victim slayings shows the average age of the [assailant] to be 14.5 years, and the victim 13.5 years."

A look at some recent school shootings bears him out:

-Moses Lake, Wash. — February 1996: three killed and one wounded when Barry Loukaitis, 14, fires on an algebra class;

-West Paducah, Ky. — December 1997: three killed and five wounded when Michael Carneal, 14, opens fire on a prayer circle;

-Jonesboro, Ark. — March 1998: five killed and 10 wounded when Andrew Golden, 11, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, spray gunfire after a false fire alarm evacuation;

-Springfield, Ore. — May 1998: four killed and 22 injured in a shooting rampage by Kipland Kinkel, 15;

-Richmond, Va. — June 1998: two wounded as Quinshawn Booker, 14, opens fire in a crowded high school hallway.

Despite these alarming incidents and indicators, Rosenberg contends that "this is a preventable problem." He cites studies showing that programs that teach youth options to anger through problem-solving, social skills, and mentoring have had a positive impact on those with a history of severe violence and aggression.

Youth Workers Tapped

Rosenberg and the other experts were summoned to the White House in the wake of the Jonesboro incident and days before the release of a U.S. Department of Education report showing that 6,093 students had been expelled from public schools nationwide for carrying firearms.

Among those attending was Scott Poland, director of psychological services for the Cypress-Fairbanks School District in Houston, Tex. Poland, who served as the team leader for the seven-member National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA) crisis team flown into Jonesboro 26 hours after the shooting, says that "so much depends on politics" in finding ways of getting to the root causes of youth violence. "The one common denominator" in all of the tragic incidents, he stressed at the White House meeting, was "an easy access to guns."

Seventeen-year-old Antonio Sanford of Cleveland, a student-trainer with the W.A.V.E conflict resolution program and the only youth to get an invitation, says the president held forth for 90 minutes and "made me believe" that he favors prevention programs.

"The president told us it was difficult to sell this to the American public because all they wanted was more jails," recounts Sanford.

More Police Needed?

When Clinton announced in June that he ordered Reno and Riley to find ways to assign more police officers to schools this fall, Sanford was startled. "I don't want to see more police in schools," he says. "I'm already tired of seeing so many in my neighborhood. Kids will stay away. I asked for more youth empowerment at the meeting....We need more responsibility to keep us from becoming passive. We have shown [with W.A.V.E.] that we can mediate those small ‘he said, she said' squabbles that can lead to shootings."

"The increased police presence is not going to work," agrees Carole Close, director of the Cleveland Public Schools Center for Public Resolution, which administers W.A.V.E. (Winning Against Violent Environment). She accompanied Sanford to the White House meeting.

"You need to build a community of kids within the school so that potential flashpoints are reported instantly," she says, reiterating her White House remarks. "And handled by the kids themselves, because adults tend to tell kids what to do. Youngsters tell their peers what they won't tell adults. This way, with all the facts known, they come up with solutions. "

W.A.V.E, funded by the school system, has set up a high school pilot program that offers a credit course in conflict resolution. Proponents of peer-mediation and conflict-resolution curriculums have often chided Riley and his department for not doing enough in this area.

Don't Interrupt

Sanford, who will be a senior this fall at the Martin Luther King Law and Public Service Magnet High School, mediates disputes and conflicts along with his twin sister, Anntoinette, and 63 other student mediators and trainers in the city's 35 middle schools and high schools. The sessions occur during study hall or after school. Students must maintain a C average to be mediators and trainers.

The mediators are trained to handle on-the-spot conflicts at recess, in hallways, or in the cafeteria, as well as to run mediation hearings. A student who faces suspension can request mediation. If the session is successful, the suspension may be voided or lessened.

To get a confidential peer mediation hearing, the students must agree to three ground rules: Each party must respect the other; neither party may interrupt the other, or any part of the proceedings; all involved must remain seated.

"It works," said Sanford, a four-year W.A.V.E veteran. "We gather together all who are directly involved in the conflict and put them in one room. I sit in the middle to show my neutrality. We pinpoint where the conflict began and talk it out."

What is Prevention?

In the meeting with the president, Edna Povich of the Center for Dispute Settlement urged that mediation be used as an alternative to suspension, and that teachers be given skills to deal with the "pushing, shoving, and insults" that can escalate into major incidents.

"You can get suspended in the [Washington, D.C.] public school system [for] going to lockers at the wrong time of day. This is not a productive method," Povich says. "The initial problem is not dealt with, the student goes home and the problem is continued in the neighborhood. What are we accomplishing? Suspending students doesn't teach."

Povich, who attended both meetings, notes that those at the roundtables had "different concepts" of what teen violence prevention strategies are. She singled out a law enforcement representative who described armed guards and metal detectors as "prevention strategies."

Another prevention proponent at the roundtables was Deborah Prothrow-Stith of the Harvard School of Public Health, who agreed with Rosenberg that youth violence should be viewed as a preventable public health problem. "Too often, punishment is confused with prevention," she says. Like Povich, she sees suspensions as creating more problems: "The youth is now ostracized and ridiculed by peers. This is not helpful to the individual."

Frank Sanchez, director of Delinquency Prevention for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, told those gathered at the meetings that the alleged teen killers in the incidents at Jonesboro, Paducah, and Pearl, Miss., "lacked the coping skills necessary to deal with the natural let-downs of adolescent life." He struck a chord with Rosenberg and others when he said, "The latest cases reveal that youth violence transcends economic status and ethnicity. No longer are the inner cities and urban settings of America, alone, vulnerable to this type of random violence."

All who attended cited America's violence-saturated culture as part of the problem.

Hooey for Hollywood

Armed with statistics and strategies from the roundtable talks, and with a CDC study that said 77 percent of school-associated violent deaths involve firearms, Clinton and Riley have recently blamed the glorification of violence in popular culture, easy access to firearms, and lax parental supervision for the spate of school shootings.

"When mindless killing becomes a staple of family entertainment, when over and over children see conflicts resolved not with words, but with weapons, we shouldn't be surprised when children, from impulse or design, follow suit," said Clinton in a radio address.

The Clinton administration has recently called for or implemented several steps: the restoration of funding for intervention and prevention programs that Congress cut from Clinton's juvenile crime legislation; more after-school programs; tighter evaluation procedures (issued In June) to weed out ineffective programs from the $556 million Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program; reduction of firearm availability to children; increased partnership and collaboration among professionals who work with youth; a contract with the National Association of Psychologists to write guidelines on how to spot youth trouble signs before violent out bursts; and the establishment of a National Safe Schools Center to provide schools with information, training, and technical assistance in school crime and violence issues.

Azim Khamisa, whose only son was gunned down by a teen gang while delivering a pizza in 1995, was invited to the roundtable after he formed a foundation in honor of his son to teach non-violence to school children. Khamisa joined forces with the slayer's grandfather to get out the message of nonviolence to youth in the San Diego area, where he resides.

"We are here as a resource," Khamisa explains. "We go to school assemblies and give out our phone number where we can be reached seven days a week. We provide intervention, prevention and immediate assistance to the children who need it."

At the White House meeting, Khamisa quoted Ghandi in response to some of the punitive measures he was hearing: "An eye for an eye makes the world blind."


White House Plugs in to Youth Workers for School Violence Remedies: White House School Violence Roundtable Participants

Alexander, Bill. "White House Plugs in to Youth Workers for School Violence Remedies." Youth Today, July/August 1998, p. 8 - 10.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.