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Safety Zone

Some experts say K-3 students are showing more violent tendencies in schools. What does this mean and how can you keep these problems from becoming worse?

--A Minnesota kindergartner doesn't like her teacher's instruction to her, so the girl stabs the teacher with plastic Crayola scissors, cutting a few inches into the teacher's back.

--A second grader in Indiana threatens to hit his teacher with his shoe.

--In Greenville, S.C., two preschoolers, 75 kindergartners, and 132 first-graders are suspended.

--A handful of youngsters nationwide bring daddy's loaded gun to school for show-and-tell.

These incidents happened within the past five years. Has the world gone mad? Depending on the interpretation, numbers show that younger children, from preschool to grade 3, are acting out in violent ways more than they did 10 or 20 years ago.

Some education experts say the statistics fail to prove any great change in young children's behavior, but there is less tolerance now for bad behavior, so more children are being punished.

But other experts say criminal behaviors are spreading to tykes who should be thinking about when milk and cookies are served, not if they should stab a teacher.

Since the late 1980s, a number of acronyms were born to describe the evolution of problem behavior in youths. ADD, Attention Deficit Disorder, was the first popular phrase to explain why some children show aggression or care less for rules in class, says Ralph Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, which focuses on crime and drug prevention in schools nationwide.

Then ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, was popular. Now, ODD/CD, or Oppositional Defiant Disorder/Conduct Disorder, and Intermittent Explosive Disorder are the newest buzz words.

"From time to time, they [students with IED] may decide to punch another student or teacher," he says. "It kind of tells you where we are today. Ninety-eight percent of kids behave as expected. Yet there is violence at younger and younger ages."

There are no specific national statistics available on violence perpetrated among students in pre-K through grade three. Statistics show that the number of serious crimes in schools nationwide has decreased since 1992-from 245,000 incidents to about 128,000 in 2000. But William Modzeleski, associate deputy undersecretary at the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools in the U.S. Department of Education, says bad behavior among students has increased steadily since the 1970s.

"I don't want to be a teacher in front of 20 kids and have one or two kids acting out and have to constantly stop, taking away valuable teaching time from other kids," he says.

"It can be a crisis. And it needs to be addressed."

But Stephens says he sees more younger students acting in criminal ways. In his work to help districts across the nation create safe school planning or training programs on bully, gang and weapons prevention, Stephens finds most districts he visits plan to establish or have established alternative schools for disruptive youth-at the elementary level. "It's mainly a phenomena of the last five to seven years," Stephens says. "Some of the trends we've seen in juvenile crime focus on the fact that much of the crime and violence are perpetrated by youngsters at younger and younger ages."

And various states have laws now that allow children at younger and younger ages be remanded to the adult court system, he says. Missouri now has a threshold age of 12, meaning a child as young at 12 can be sent to adult court for a serious crime. "It says the public is frustrated with individuals irrespective of their ages," Stephens says.

In 2001-02 in North Carolina, 9,921 acts were reported for students in pre-kindergarten through grade five, including possession of weapons, excluding guns and explosives; non-serious assault on school personnel; and possession of a controlled substance.

"We're not sure" why the number is so high, says Marguerite Peebles, section chief for alternative and safe schools section of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. "Some schools are more vigilant in enforcing a zero tolerance policy, to report right away. Kids do tend to behave differently now than they did 10 years ago."

In Minnesota, officials say that a few districts may be more aggressive than others in determining what is serious enough to constitute out-of-school suspension. From1997-98 to 2000-01, the numbers of children in K-2 who received out-of-school suspensions increased from 1,843 to 2,013. But Darren Kermes, supervisor of due process for the Minnesota Department of Education, says the numbers don't show a big difference in behavior over the years. The difference in K-3 violence or disturbing behavior compared to high school violence is "intent," Kermes says. "We occasionally see a kindergartner who brings the firecracker or bullet to school," he says. "Administrators look at the intent. The 5- or 6-year-old may think it's funny and have no intent [to do harm]."

Expulsions among all Minnesota students have increased in the past 12 years, Kermes says, but only two students in K-2 have been expelled in the past few years. "I do believe it's fair to say that in the last 10 to 15 years, there's been an increase in the number of times younger kids have been engaging in acting out disruptive behavior," Kermes says. "I hear from many administrators concerned that this is something they are seeing."


Research offers "as many theories [on why violence is enveloping younger children] as there are flavors of ice cream at Baskin Robbins," ranging from family and community circumstances to kids' frustration over not doing well academically, Modzeleski says.

According to an issue of Social Policy Report, a quarterly publication of the Society for Research in Child Development, children in poor neighborhoods are at greater risk for developing emotional and social difficulties, and therefore, face grave risks of early school difficulty.

Some experts say more children are exposed to violent images, either on TV, in the movies, on video games, or even on playing fields and at home.

"When you were a kid 30 years ago, the scariest stuff we saw was the road runner and the coyote," says Mark D. Lerner, president of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. "Now there are computer games and video games, and they're observing violence on TV. And there's a breakdown in the communication in families. By and large, I think this is the biggest cause of violence in schools. Kids don't sit down with their parents. They're in Internet chat rooms or playing video games."

Just watching sports can reveal the violent side of superheroes in children's eyes and may influence them, according to Tom Langdoc, director of school community services for Wayne Township, Ind., where the aforementioned second-grader used his shoe to threaten a teacher. "I think in society as a whole there is a greater tendency to act out behaviors that previously may have been suppressed," Langdoc says. "They are exposed to examples of that, in programming and sporting events."

Stephens adds that children tend to act out negative behavior. "One of the major problems occurring in some elementary schools in the past two or three years is the tendency of youngsters to mimic the big-time wrestling moves, the drop kicks," Stephens says. "Kids don't realize that's just for entertainment."


"There were theories, the predator theory [about five years ago] that we had a bunch of [young] hooligans that were coming along and getting older, and there was going to be carnage on our streets," Modzeleski says. "There was a whole theory that kids were so dangerous on the streets they were going to turn into killers. It never occurred."

Research offers as many theories [on why violence is enveloping younger children] as there are flavors of ice cream at Baskin Robbins. -William Modzeleski, associate deputy undersecretary, Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, U.S. Dept. of Education

"I think the bottom line here is that it is almost impossible to predict future behaviors," he says. "I don't think you can take a look at kids and [assume] that by the time they reach high school, they'll be in serious trouble. I do believe kids in early grades give out signals. And I think educators are pretty good in picking up signals. We could change the course of the pathway of these kids. If they are misbehaving or acting out, it is a sign, a call for help. And history proves we can turn their lives around. It's not grim."

Because there are "a hundred different reasons why kids act out," Modzeleski says it's hard to pinpoint how to resolve the problem. Administrators need to assess why one particular student is acting out or becoming violent. There is no one strategy that fits every problem of every child, he says. So school administrators need to use multiple programs with many professionals, such as mental health workers, child psychologists and social workers.

And Lerner adds that oppositional children do not necessarily grow to be an antisocial or violent adult.

"It's not a causal relationship," Lerner says. But research shows that anti-social adults were, as children, oppositional and defiant.

Children need help in school, according to A Practical Guide for Crisis Response in Our Schools, a book of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress and co-authored by Lerner. In part, they must develop and improve communication and problem-solving skills; understand how important it is to verbalize feelings; know it is safe to err on the side of caution when expressing concern over others; know they can turn to school support personnel who will listen; and learn to replace self-defeating statements with positive coping statements.

Addressing this topic is a research brief titled A Stitch in Time: What Works with Troubled Preschoolers by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, an anti-crime group of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, victims of violence, and youth violence experts. The brief explains that many children with high levels of aggression will later be more apt to fail in school and be delinquent. But research also shows that early intervention can significantly decrease such behaviors.


It didn't take a national trend to prevent violence in Chicago. Since 1967, Chicago Public Schools has used a pre-school program, The Child-Parent Center, to serve children within Title I elementary school boundaries. It has already served 100,000 children in the city's poorest areas. Research shows that children who did not undergo the program were 70 percent more likely than participants to have been arrested for a violent crime by age 18.

It offers a structured, language-based instructional model and brings parents to school to witness what's happening in classrooms and to attend workshop sessions. "Sometimes teachers are not in line with children's capabilities," says Pamela Stevens, the center's manager. "In some cases, the way we expect children to use materials will cause them to react violently if we're not giving them enough time to use them appropriately," Stevens says.

Teachers have to model appropriate behavior, use proper language and know how to settle disputes and align the day's activities so children are seeing the purpose behind their activities, she says.

Another program that helps decrease violent behavior among students is The Incredible Years Program.

And according to experts involved in the program, young children with high aggressive behaviors are indeed at great risk to develop substance abuse problems, socialize with deviant peer groups, drop out of school and engage in violence. The program uses three multi-faceted and developmentally based curricula for parents, teachers and children. It aims to prevent and reduce behavior and emotional problems in children age 2 to 8.

The program, which trains parents and children in problem-solving skills and non-aggressive social skills, has helped two-thirds of the treated families to reduce aggression. The curricula could be used as early prevention programs, including in Head Start, day care and kindergarten. And results show success. At least 66 percent of children previously diagnosed with ODD/CD and whose parents were involved in the parenting program were in the normal range at both the 1-year and 3-year follow-up assessments.

Pittsburgh's Early Childhood Initiative is another program that teaches caregivers to work with troubled children and their parents in school. When the program started, 18 percent of the children in ECI centers had social skills and behavioral problems that warranted a mental health diagnosis. After one year, children showed "dramatic increases" in social skills and fewer behavior problems, the report states.

"If history is any indication for the future, it will get better," Modzeleski says. "We know more today than we did yesterday in terms of the cause of crime and the programs that work. It's a slow process, an evolutionary process."