The message at another recent school safety conference sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) was simple: Students who commit violent acts in schools are often neglected by family, community members, and peers.
Bill Modzeleski, director of ED’s Safe and Drug Free Schools program, urged educators March 9 to build alliances with local service organizations and, most importantly, with students themselves in order to prevent school violence.
The students who commit violent acts are often victims of bullies and turn to violence as a last resort, he said.
“We insist no child falls through the cracks,” Modzeleski said on the first day of a two-day Delta Safe Schools Conference. “Every child that needs help, gets help. And every child goes through life with a steady, mature hand.”
More than 100 educators from the seven-state Mississippi Delta region attended the conference at Arkansas State University.
Modzeleski said schools must reach out to community agencies that provide special services to students, such as youth centers, law enforcement agencies, mental health centers, and churches.
Schools don’t exist in isolation, he said, and fostering relationships with community institutions helps ensure students get adequate attention before violence can occur.
Modzeleski said that, for the most part, public schools are “among the safest places in the country.” He said 90 percent of schools have no serious violent crime and 43 percent of schools have no crime at all.
He said recent mass shootings, including the murder of four students and a teacher at Westside Middle School in nearby Jonesboro almost two years ago, make some people think all school violence is on the increase.
“There is a perception, especially in Jonesboro, that crime and violence have become a regular part of school life,” he said, but incidents of school violence have stayed about the same since the 1960s.
He said that his department and local school districts should work together to make schools safe in the 10 percent of districts that experience violent crime and the 57 percent who suffer some crime.
Administrators should abandon traditional measures in favor of providing discipline in the best interest of the student, Modzelewski said.
Ending school violence starts by building a connection with every student, he said, as well as shifting the focus from serious crimes to violent incidents that occur in school every day. He said small discipline problems like fistfights and truancy could lead to more serious crimes if a student’s need is not immediately addressed.
Modzeleski said interviews with more than a dozen students who have committed murders on schoolbut not including Westside shooters Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Goldenshowed that most viewed themselves as victims of constant harassment at school.
“The schools did little or nothing to help them,” he said. “Absent is any symbol of connectiveness between them and the school or the family.”
The conference was called in December by President Clinton as part of his administration’s broad initiative to boost the Delta region.