As school districts, policymakers and parents across the country grapple with how best to stem the tide of school violence in the wake of a mass shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan, a UMass Lowell education expert says decades of research suggest the key to safe schools is not metal detectors, security guards, police or disciplining students – it’s trust.
To date, 2021 has seen 31 shootings in the nation’s K-12 schools, with the violence on Nov. 30 in Michigan – which killed four people and injured seven others – the deadliest since May 2018, according to Education Week, which tracks these incidents. Ethan Crumbley, the 15-year-old suspect in the Michigan case, has pled not guilty and is scheduled to be back in court next month. His parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, who have also been charged, have pled not guilty and face a probable-cause hearing today.
Building trusting relationships and finding peaceable ways to resolve conflict are key to de-escalating violence before it erupts, according to UMass Lowell’s Hilary Lustick
, an educational leadership scholar who studies discipline reform and school culture in middle and high schools.
“When students feel known by an adult in school, they are more likely to tell that adult they are struggling than act out. Frequent absences, missed assignments, off-task classroom behavior and violence are all common ways students act out, especially during this stressful period of return to in-person schooling amid the COVID era,” she says. “The issues that seem overwhelming are exactly what need to be discussed. Every child in your school should be able to name an adult they feel comfortable speaking to if they are struggling, personally or academically. Even more importantly, every child should have an adult who knows them well enough to detect when something seems off – even if the student doesn’t disclose this in words.”?
This type of trust building is especially important in schools where teachers do not reflect their students in terms of race, ethnicity and background. Black students are three times more likely to be suspended than their white peers and are more likely to get in trouble for negative interactions with teachers, according to Lustick.
“The only way to address these issues is to improve relationships, trust and communication among students and staff. There are many formal practices, from restorative justice to social-emotional learning programs that can help build a strong school culture and community. It matters less which program you go with than how thoroughly you facilitate trust and community-building in your school,” she says.
Lustick is available to discuss:
- Factors that give rise to violence in schools;
- Racial disproportionality in school discipline (the schools-to-prison pipeline);
- Zero-tolerance policies and the shift to alternatives, such as restorative justice programs and social-emotional learning.
Lustick is an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction in UMass Lowell’s School of Education. To arrange an interview with her via phone, email or Zoom (or another platform), contact Nancy Cicco at Nancy_Cicco@uml.edu