Award Winning: A Closer Look At School Violence

As a former Philadelphia public school student, I can only imagine where education is heading when the only stories regarding students are told from the outside looking in. With adequate funding of our schools and a serious analysis of not only what students need in the classroom, but also what they’re dealing with outside their school doors, peer-to-peer violence would decline.

I can’t stress it enough that if there were more supports inside of schools that catered to the stark and frightening issues our young people face at home and in their communities the school environment would improve. Students are coming to school from broken homes, raising siblings, abuse, and a host of other constraints that often aren’t addressed inside of school. It’s very easy for publications and adults alike to just demonize students and sensationalize the violence in schools without ever talking about the root causes of that violence and the steps that could be taken to resolve them.

Young people didn’t create the larger societal issues, like poverty, that lead to violence inside schools. The reality is, that despite their hardships, students endure inside and outside of school, many manage to make the most out of the education they receive. Which is why I find it extremely disheartening that a news publication can win an award at the expense of students.

The Philadelphia Inquirer was recently honored in March with the Larry Weiss Award for Investigative Journalism which is open to journalism of any medium (print, broadcast or online) produced in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, South Jersey or Delaware. It includes one top prize of $10,000 and two special recognition prizes of $2,500. In addition to the Weiss Award on Monday April 16th The Philadelphia Inquirer also won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The Philadelphia Inquirer received these awards for their Assault On Learning series that looked at the issues of school violence in Philadelphia.

The Inquirer’s series, however, only reflected student participation as victims or aggressors of school violence. There was no investigation into what students think could change the violence they see inside their schools.

The violence captured in the Inquirer’s Assault On Learning series seemed like an insurmountable task for anyone to try and change. In fact the series left me, a graduate of the Philadelphia School District, frightened by the accounts of youth violence. 5 of the 7 pieces of the 7 part series presented such an overwhelming sense of despair that I found myself believing our students and our schools were hopeless.

Provocative portraits like the Assault On Learning series don’t help students, it only condemns them. Sensationalizing the interpersonal violence in schools is like waving the green flag to usher in more zero tolerance inside of schools and shaping the image of young people as dangerous.

Yes violence occurs in Philadelphia schools, I know this first hand, but it’s ludicrous to only cast the spotlight upon the acts of violence committed by students and not the underlying issues that lead to that behavior. Violence is a symptom of the greater injustices that our schools, communities, and students are suffering. Our schools don’t have money, our communities don’t have money, and our students don’t have money. This lack of money which provides the access to much needed resources is downright painful. It’s irresponsible to only look at school violence as students running wild and not as a reactionary response to the structural violence they face in under-resourced schools and communities.

Philadelphia schools have the capacity to serve students better and The Campaign For Nonviolent Schools outlines how. According to its platform school violence will decrease if the discipline, student supports, student voice and classroom engagement are the main focus. “Climate improves when young people receive individualized attention and when they don’t fall through the cracks.” The CNS platform of restorative practices that include individualized attention for students is the solution to violence found in Philadelphia schools. Just this past Tuesday, young people from CNS groups attended a meeting of the School District’s School Safety Committee,to share their best practices for supportive school discipline. The members of the committee include school principals, district officials and representatives of the Mayor’s office and is chaired by School Reform Commissioner, Lorene Cary.

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