How Do We Combat Violence in Schools?
The media continues to bring to the public’s attention the crisis of violence that plagues many of South Africa’s schools. For example, at the end of last year a video of a girl in Siyathuthuka Secondary School in Inanda, KwaZulu-Natal, went viral. The girl is shown on the floor, being beaten and kicked on the head by a schoolmate. In another video, a group of boys are seen fighting with knives on the school premises at Richards Bay High.
A number of commentators expressed their horror, which is somewhat surprising, as most South Africans have been victims of some or other crime.
I have tracked media reports on school shootings, stabbings, beatings, bullying and so forth for some time. These reports show that this is an ongoing challenge in a number of our schools—but not all.
I am more optimistic about addressing violence in schools than in society at large. Schools have the ability to create communities, communities that are known and bounded.
Sort Out the Central Purpose of Schools
School communities need to be brought together around a common purpose—the central purpose of a school being to teach and learn.
But schools also have to share values and make sure that pupils engage in the world in an honest way. Schools themselves have to be institutions that treat children fairly and teachers (and leaders) have to model the behaviour they expect from pupils.
Any good teacher will tell you that you need order in a school, especially in classrooms, to ensure that learning takes place.
Changing the way we do things isn’t easy, but schools have to make a start.
Firstly, schools need to be secured and made safe. Fences and gates need to be fixed and access to the school must be controlled. Litter needs to be cleared away, classrooms swept, cracked windows need to be replaced, and broken doors and handles need to be repaired.
Secondly, teachers need to change their attitude towards pupils.
They need to realise that teaching children how to behave is part of the job. They need to show children that there are consequences for bad behaviour, and for breaking the rules.
Schools need to do away with any practices that foster violence. For example, corporal punishment merely teaches children the values of degradation, force and humiliation. It must be stopped. Intimidation by leaders and teachers also needs to be avoided in school situations.
Since teaching and learning are central, and pupil performance is a measure for children of self-worth, each child needs to be assisted to achieve the best they can. Schools need to make sure that teaching-time is used effectively, and that pupils of all abilities are engaged in classrooms.
School policies must see that the safety of pupils is ensured. The policies and codes of conduct that emerge from them must be communicated and understood by everyone in the school community.
It is also important to teach pupils how to deal with conflict when it arises, and schools should not just expect pupils to be able to solve all their problems on their own.
More than ever it seems clear that learning how to behave in a group is an important life skill to teach!
What are the immediate actions any school can take to deal with violence?
– Model and celebrate good behaviour.
– Make sure that the school rules are clear and are understood by everyone; ensure that pupils know what the consequences of breaking the rules are.
– Ensure that there are adults to supervise pupils at school, and that they are visible in high-risk areas in the school.
– Deal with all acts of criminal aggression and violence. Where violations of the law occur, report these to the police. Children need to understand that violent or aggressive behaviour will not be tolerated at school.
– When drugs and weapons are a serious problem at a school, then conduct regular, unannounced searches.
– Inform parents and guardians that these will take place as part of the school’s routine. Where possible, involve the police in these searches and make sure that pupil’s rights are not violated.
– Make pupils aware of the risks of using illegal drugs and of the dangers of guns and other weapons. Pupils need to understand what weapons can do. Invite rehabilitated criminals to speak to pupils, help them to appreciate the grim realities of violence.
– Wherever possible, get the parents and guardians on your side. Make sure that they know what their children are up to at school and call them in when necessary.
– Create a violence action plan to deal with serious incidents of violence, for example, “if a pupil pulls out a gun in a classroom, this is what you do…”
– Involve pupils in problem-solving and violence prevention. Get them to share ideas and their concerns.
– Install video cameras and improve lighting in strategic areas (if the school can afford this).
Dr Mark Potterton is the principal of Sacred Heart College Primary in Johannesburg and the author of Beat Bullying: A Practical Guide for Schools.