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Shed Light on Problem Behind Fighting;
Adults' Decisions Increase Violence

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 16, 2008, p. A13

In the 1970s I bought a 1963 Volvo from a friend for $300 and drove it for years. It would be running still but for its rusted chassis and body.

My superficial improvements with duct tape and paint quickly vanished. The rust, you see, was from within.

My mechanic, concerned for my safety, refused to work on it any longer.

Reports of increased violence in our schools remind me of that experience.

Having served on the school board, I have confidence the present members – genuinely concerned and knowing they must “do something” – will buy and apply the highest quality of conventional duct tape and paint in the form of more lighting, video cameras, ID badges and locks, and maybe armed guards, metal detectors, and lockups for troublemakers.

But like painting my rusting Volvo, it won’t eliminate underlying causes.

And what might they be? As George Carlin observes, “Some say the glass is half empty. Others say it’s half full. I say the glass is too big.”

Regardless of demographics, the data is overwhelming: when enrollment goes over 600 students there is an increase not only in violence but in dropouts, absences, alcohol and drug abuse, bullying, graffiti, teen pregnancy, and often a decline in academic performance.

As researcher Tom Gregory puts it, “if we keep building big schools, we are increasing the chance of a Littleton-type incident by nearly 10 times.”
And yet, handed $40 million by the District’s taxpayers, we spent it making City and West even larger. In short, we have deliberately created the problems we now confront.

Don’t just take my word for it.

Annenberg Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, Center for Collaborative Education, Center for School Change, Gates Foundation, Harvard’s Change Leadership Group, Open Society Institute, Pew Charitable Trusts, and the U.S. Department of Education’s Smaller Learning Communities Program.

What do these prestigious organizations have in common? Each believes smaller is better.

One of New York’s best secondary schools is in one of the city’s worst school districts: East Harlem. It graduates 90 percent. And it’s reduced violence without metal detectors. How?

Former Secretary of Education Richard Riley explained it to me. The top recommendation of his best security experts was not metal detectors, more police, or video monitors. It was smaller schools. It worked.

When I graduated from University High School with 40 classmates in 1952 seven percent of the nation’s high schools had over 1,000 students. Today two-thirds of high school students attend such schools.

Smaller schools reduce students’ estrangement. They take ownership and have more sense of belonging. Students feel closer bonds with teachers. Teachers with each other. And safety is one of the benefits.

Is manageable size a cure-all? Of course not. But “where everybody knows your name,” as the “Cheers” theme song put it, adult mentoring becomes logistically possible, everyone can participate in student activities (not just the gifted elites), more can aspire to college, and social constraints, rather than armed police, help control behavior.

Knowing this, why have we not built smaller schools? The nostalgia of sending one's children to the high school one attended, the self interest of administrators and teachers, coupled with the passion for winning football teams has been too much for most boards (including ours) to overcome. And don’t forget the education industry’s resistance to change. As one wag noted, "it took us 35 years to get the overhead projector out of the bowling alley and into the classroom."

“Local control of schools" means we have the legal and political right to ignore  research, data, “best practices” and “what works.” And I support local control --  school boards’ implementation of public preferences.

But public preferences and board decisions have consequences – the predictable, and predicted, consequences we now confront.

So call the cops if you must. But it seems to me once the schools approach student violence as an Iraq-style get-tough battle and "surge" they’ve already lost the war.

Nicholas Johnson, former FCC Commissioner and school board member teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law and maintains and