Addressing School Violence

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By Jeff Adachi and Angela Chan

Nearly half of 8,000 San Francisco high school students recently surveyed believe that violence at school is a serious problem. This alarming statistic requires greater focus on reducing violence, bullying and harassment in our schools. Students cannot learn at their full potential if they fear for their safety. 

This need is particularly acute for Asian and Pacific American youth, who comprise 48 percent of the 56,000 students enrolled in the San Francisco Unified School District.  In February 2007, predominantly APA schools in SFUSD — including Lincoln and Washington High Schools — had among the highest number of incident reports involving violence of all high schools in the district.

Many of these incidents involve racially motivated violence.  A 2004 survey of APA youth in San Francisco found that 37 percent had been victims of violence by a person who is not APA, and 38 percent of APA youth cited racial tension as the cause of fights at school. Yet, incidents of violence and harassment often go unreported due to fear of retaliation, trauma, and victims’ lack of knowledge of what constitutes a hate crime.

Violence in schools results in a higher number of student suspensions and expulsions, which lead to truancy and increased dropout rates. According to a recent San Francisco Chronicle article, there were over 332,000 suspensions statewide for drugs and violence last year, an increase of 16,000 from the previous year.  In the Bay Area alone, there were over 52,000 suspensions for drugs and violence.

Cultural and language barriers pose unique challenges to APA parents whose child may be subjected to suspension or expulsion. Among APA youth surveyed in 2004, 74 percent indicated that they translated for their parents some or all of the time. Non-English speaking parents may be unable to fully comprehend and assist their children should they face school disciplinary action and/or become involved in the juvenile justice system.

However, steps can be taken to reduce school violence and divert youth from the juvenile justice system.  In early May, over 250 youth, parents, government leaders and community service providers gathered at the Public Defender’s Juvenile Justice Summit to develop an action plan to improve school safety.  A three-pronged strategy was developed to confront and reduce violence in school:

(1) Teaching Nonviolence at School
Beginning in elementary school, schools should incorporate into their curriculum lessons on anger management, conflict mediation, cultural competency and the consequences of violence.  Additionally, schools should involve families in violence prevention efforts by offering multilingual workshops for families, teachers and administrators to publicize anti-harassment policies, and by including parents in developing plans for addressing school-wide safety issues.

(2) Involving Community in the Solution

Restorative justice programs, such as San Francisco’s Peer Court program, involve the youth victim, the youth offender and the school community in holding the offender accountable, while at the same time developing solutions to repair the harm that was caused by the offender’s actions.  These types of promising conflict mediation programs should be more consistently supported and expanded throughout the district, because they empower our youth to be a part of the solution and reduce the numbers of youth entering the juvenile system.  Community-based organizations also should develop partnerships with restorative justice programs and schools to connect youth victims and offenders with needed services, including counseling and mentoring.

(3) Parents Taking an Active Role
Parents must take an active role in ensuring the safety of their children at school. Parents should look for signs of victimization, such as depression, drug and alcohol use, withdrawal from family and friends, truancy and lowered academic performance. If they suspect their child is a victim of violence or bullying, they should immediately report this to school officials or to the district using the multilingual Safe School Line: (415) 241-2141. Parents should also reinforce the importance of dispute resolution skills that children learn at school to provide a consistent message of nonviolence to their children.

Addressing the problem of youth violence in our schools will not be easy. However, with schools, communities and families committed to long-term, collaborative approaches, we will reach the goal of creating a safe school environment for all youth.

Jeff Adachi is the elected public defender of the City and County of San Francisco.  Angela Chan is a juvenile justice and education attorney for the Asian Law Caucus, a nonprofit civil rights organization.  View the Juvenile Justice Summit online: sfpublicdefender.org.

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