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Schools confront a culture of violence;Briefing;Research Focus;Aera Conference

A generation reared on TV and video games is struggling to live and learn peacefully. David Budge reports from the American Educational Research Association conference on efforts to tackle the problem

Almost one in ten senior high school students in the United States carries a weapon to school.

From this side of the Atlantic that statistic looks alarming, but it is a huge improvement on previous years' figures. School crime in the US has also declined as security has been tightened and 90 per cent of schools are now free of serious violent crime.

The media blitz that followed the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado also obscured another salient fact: more than 80 per cent of murdered children are killed by adults over the age of 20.

None of the researchers at the American Educational Research Association conference believed they had ready remedies for either youth or adult violence. But some argued that television was partly culpable.

Irene MacDonald of the University of Calgary pointed out that, by the age of 12, most children have seen about 8,000 murders and more than 100,000 acts of violence on television.

"Furthermore, channel-changers (remote controls) allow children to effect a 'quick fix' when a programme does not interest them," she said. "Skills necessary for positive interpersonal relationships - negotiation, compromise and commitment - are inessential for children who watch television or play video games."

But Dr MacDonald said that the "custodial model" of schooling also had to change. It was no longer sensible to try to control children through punitive sanctions, and insist they follow rules without question.

"Adult-imposed policies (can) alienate, frustrate and 'turn off' the very minds that schools are supposed to engage and inspire." The goal, she said, should not be the eradication of the violence "problem" but the creation of a climate of caring.

Syracuse University researcher Joan Burstyn advocated a whole-school approach to conflict resolution. History teachers were tackling the issue using case studies of events such as the 1845 Mexican-American War and infant reading lessons could easily be adapted to raise behaviour issues, too.

"But such an approach not only affects curriculum and teaching methods," she said. "It involves all school personnel in developing new skills of interpersonal communication. Each child enters school with some interpersonal skills but we can only guarantee that the majority of people will learn and practise them when we teach them in our public schools."

However, a third paper containing disturbing testimonies by middle-school children in a poor urban area illustrated why schools can never overcome society's ills on their own.

One girl told West Chester University researcher Dave Brown: "You want to have fun. Your parents say you've got a long time to live. But you never know when you're going to die." Another girl said simply: "When I go to to the corner store, I think I might get hit by a stray bullet."

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