School Choice Could Help Alleviate Violence

by Alexander Volokh
from the Wall Street Journal

May 10, 1999

In the wake of the Littleton, Colo., shootings, everyone is offering opinions on how to prevent school violence. "Obviously, we have to address the root causes and set up a violence-prevention program," some say. Others claim, "We should install metal detectors." Or: "We need uniforms, or more suspensions, or paddling, or midnight basketball."

Unfortunately, making schools safe is a tricky question, with answers varying dramatically from school to school. Everyday violence is hard enough; no one has a clue on random school shootings. Moreover, the public- school system as we know it is unlikely to find or successfully implement the proper policy.

Many who remember a simpler, safer world yearn for a return to good old-fashioned discipline and punishment. But even if discipline is effective, the civil-liberties revolution has been bad news for disciplinarians. Since government-run schools have to provide services fairly and guard against abuses of power, they have a hard time suspending or expelling unruly students.

Corporal punishment and public embarrassment are subject to legal limits, and even policies tying grades to behavior have been subjected to court challenges. Locker searches are limited on civil-liberties grounds. The ACLU opposes dress codes, which a spokeswoman characterizes as "a desperate reaction on the part of school officials frustrated with the lack of solutions to their problems." Even hair-length regulations might be challenged in court.

Not all potential lawsuits are winners, but often the threat of a lawsuit is enough to get a school to back down, recognizing that it would rather spend its time and money teaching.

What about high-tech gizmos? Metal detectors are already used in many inner-city schools, and their effectiveness is unclear. Walk-through "archway" detectors are expensive, while cheaper hand-held "wands" are less effective. Lost time is also a cost. In New York, since it takes hours to screen all students, many inner-city schools only check one student in nine, maybe one in five at less-crowded times.

Even with partial scanning, students sometimes come to class half an hour late. Video cameras, guards and other security measures have similar problems — monitoring only gets you so far until the costs become prohibitive. To get as much security as one would like, says a Dallas school-district official, "you're talking megabucks."

Unwilling or unable to implement discipline codes or enforce punitive measures, and dissatisfied with the results or costs of the high-tech approach, many schools have turned to "softer" violence-prevention programs — anger management, conflict resolution, and gang prevention. Academic educators love these, but most programs are never seriously evaluated, and almost none of the evaluations would pass muster with a competent statistician.

There is little evidence that gang-prevention programs have any effect; some programs even show negative effects. Why do schools keep adopting these programs without any evidence that they work? Perhaps because from a public-school administrator's point of view, there is no significant loss in attendance or funding from a program that doesn't work.

In short, the problem with rushing to adopt uniforms or metal detectors or anger-management programs is that there is no silver-bullet program to end school violence. This should be obvious, but it's often forgotten.

If schools were alike, with similar student bodies, similar communities and similar populations of outcasts and gangsters, we could mandate similar programs everywhere. If behavioral psychology were an exact science, the "experts" could design the ideal plan for each school. But in the messy world, the best we can do is have a school system where we're reasonably satisfied that promising policies will be adopted and failed ones won't.

It's no coincidence that school violence is mostly a problem of public schools. Private-school administrators live in a different world — having a reputation for violence makes them lose students. Public schools often have captive clienteles, especially in inner cities, and they know it. Just as important, private schools also have more freedom to experiment.

In private schools, disciplinary policies aren't civil-liberties issues. Uniforms, locker searches, suspension, grade reduction — all of these time-honored policies are harder for public schools to implement. Private schools get to have private rules. And freedom also means freedom to carry out grander experiments that would be unheard of in the public sector.

Some think that all-girls' schools are safer for girls, chiefly because they have no boys. Whether the government can run same-sex schools is controversial, but the private sector certainly can; and existing single-sex schools clearly do well by the parents who send their children there.

And of course, the government can't teach — gasp! — religious values. Catholic schools didn't achieve their remarkably violence-free record by only accepting rich white kids or by expelling troublemakers. In the inner city, Catholic and public schools are demographically similar, and Catholic-school expulsion rates are quite low. They rely on contact with parents, assertive discipline and strong moral values.

Making schools safer isn't about finding a program that works in all cases; it's about setting up a system that allows and encourages schools to discover what works in *their* case. This means instituting school choice, both among public schools and between public and private schools, whether secular or religious; encouraging charter schools; decentralizing public-school management and tying rewards to results instead of providing more money to schools that fail.

Freedom and accountability — the ability to innovate, combined with competitive forces that tend to squelch innovations that don't work and encourage those that do — aren't glamorous, nor will they satisfy the crusading reformer looking for the One Best Way to prevent recurrences of Columbine. But compared with everything else, they seem like the best strategy around.

* * *

Alexander (a.k.a. Sasha) Volokh is an adjunct scholar with the Reason Public Policy Institute, and author of many studies and newspaper articles. As importantly, he's your editor's brilliant younger brother!


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