Shadow of the gunman;Opinion

14th May 1999 at 01:00
Every year 3,000 children are shot in America.Most are victimsof poverty, says Gwynedd Lloyd

On the day of the tragic and terrifying shootings in Colorado, I was in the Federal Department of Education in Washington as part of a visit to the United States to look at how schools deal with emotional and behavioural difficulties. Among the documents given to me that day was Early Warning, Timely Response, a guide to safer schools sent to every principal in the country after the shootings last year in Springfield, Oregon. This acknowledges the traumatic impact of such incidents on parents, teachers and children, but begins with the words "most schools are safe".

Most schools in the United States, as in Scotland, are safe. But every year 3,000 children are shot in the wider community. Last year 11,000 young people died as a consequence of homicide or suicide. This doesn't happen everywhere: juvenile homicides occur in only about 15 per cent of communities.

The writer Jonathan Kozol recently described the daily familiarity of children in the South Bronx with death by shooting and from illness related to both drug abuse and poverty. A national survey of school principals in 1997 found that 90 per cent reported no serious crimes in their schools. City schools were the most likely to report violent crime. Another study found that most students reported feeling safe in school.

As in Scotland, while it is important not to underestimate the disciplinary problems, it is equally crucial not to suggest that schools are facing a major crisis. Teachers I spoke to did talk of concerns about discipline. However, these seemed to be mainly the same level of difficulties as those identified by the research of my colleagues Pamela Munn and Margaret Johnstone in Scotland.

Most were low-level irritations like talking in class and distracting other children. Such is the public concern, however, about violent crime in schools that zero tolerance policies have been developed that are leading to suspensions and expulsions.

Expulsion means that often the student's parents have to try to find a different school. In some states students may be offered education in an alternative setting, in others they may be excluded from all state schools. Predictably many young people spend the day on the streets and become involved in crime, and many excluded students had previously been identified as requiring special support because of emotional or behavioural difficulties.

The federal government has recently introduced legislation to limit the expulsion of pupils with a recognised special educational need and to require the school district to continue to provide an appropriate education as specified in their individual education programme. There seems to be a familiar tension between a welfare, child-centred approach and more punitive strategies which, it is argued, protect the majority.

Many teachers with whom I spoke felt that there was a tendency to blame schools for failing to solve wider social problems and to expect schools to provide adequate support for children who had experienced extreme social disadvantage, violence and abuse in their families and communities. The massacre in Colorado was in a white middle-class school but most schools with problems are in disadvantaged neighbourhoods with children from poor, ethnic minority families.

Schools do have policies and practices that include all pupils in a safe and supportive climate. But some teachers did speak to me of the conflict they saw between the strong national emphasis on raising and assessing academic standards and the lesser time and status accorded to promoting personal and social development.

They also raised the familiar point that sometimes troubled children are unable to get support unless they are also troublesome to school discipline. They felt that sometimes they were not the best professionals to be working with some children but were not always able to find funds, in a highly market-based system, for more skilled intervention.

The United States does have, however, a much higher proportion than Scotland of pupils in special provision for what is officially called "emotional disturbance" and a very much greater use of medication. It may be easier for us to see that many problems in American schools reflect gross inequalities in society. Are there parallels here? Many schools in Scotland are trying to address problems of social exclusion.

Schools can and should provide safe places where children feel they are of equal worth but they will always reflect their social context. Many in education would also like to see still wider discussion of the relationship between schools and their social and cultural context, and in particular social inequality. Some children here have a daily experience of poverty and violence. But we do at least have gun control.

Gwynedd Lloyd is senior lecturer in the department of equity studies and special education at Moray House Institute of Edinburgh University.

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