February 2006



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School Violence from the Perspective of William Glasser
Forum 2006 keynoter, Dr. William Glasser, uses school violence as an example of how his "choice theory" can provide an alternative to the conventional security-focused approach.


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By: William Glasser, M.D.

Reprinted from the Journal of the ASCA, Professional School Counseling, December 2000, Volume 4, pages 77-80.

Even though statistics show that school violence is diminishing, it is still a threat no school can afford to dismiss. To make schools safer requires the effort of staff, students, and parents. But it is the skill of counselors that can provide what may be most needed, an effective violence prevention program. From my long experience working with students, I believe such a program is neither difficult to explain nor expensive to put into place.

Unhappiness, combined with the strong feeling in the perpetrator that others should be punished for the way he feels, is by far the main reason that anyone strikes out at another human being. Why the unhappy boy or man lashes out at the particular time he does, however, cannot be predicted. What can be predicted is that almost all unhappy boys and men carry within them the potential for violence, and in our schools there are many unhappy students. Therefore, the key to reducing violence is to do what I believe can be done in every school - reduce the number of unhappy students. The fewer there are, the fewer school problems including violence.

Any school such as Columbine High has, at any time, a specific number of very unhappy students, any one of whom is potentially violent. No one knows this exact number, but if violence occurs, it will be committed by one or two students from this group. For example, in a high school such as Columbine of 2,000 students with no violence prevention program in place at the time of the incident, there may have been 20 students unhappy enough to do what Harris and Klebold did. Therefore, to totally prevent what happened may have been impossible.

But, if a year prior to the incident, Columbine had a violence prevention program in place, it would not be unrealistic that the number of potentially violent students could have been reduced from 25 to 5 students. And making the reasonable assumption that neither Harris nor Klebold would have acted alone, if even one of them were in the group of 15 who were no longer violent, the incident could have been prevented.

In retrospect, a lot of information about the unhappiness of Harris and Klebold has been made public. But prior to the violence it is doubtful that anyone at Columbine, or any other similar high school, could have picked up enough information to predict any violence much less that it would have been committed by these young men. What was needed then and is still needed is a violence-prevention program (VPP), not only in Columbine, but in every school in the United States. Such programs would not only reduce the incidence of violence, they would reduce the incidence of all behavior problems in school. The cost of violence far exceeds the cost of an effective VPP.

What is being done now in Columbine and almost every school in the country is to enhance security. This step - security guards, X-ray machines, and restricted entrances and exits - is being taken because everyone can see it. It also gives administrators and school boards the sense that something visible is being done. But short of what is done in airports, the chance of enhanced security preventing much violence is small for the amount of money it costs. I'm not saying it shouldn't be done if there is plenty of money available, but if money is short, it will be much more effective to spend it on a VPP run by well-trained counselors who have no responsibilities other than this program.

I would estimate one such counselor for every 1,000 students would be a good number to start. In Columbine this would have meant two full-time counselors with no other responsibility except the VPP. I recognize that in a time when most school boards are reducing the number of counselors, this may seem to be a large increase. But compared with the cost of even average security, the salaries of two counselors would not be out of line. Well-trained counselors can reduce the number of unhappy students significantly. In fact, the sight of more security personnel and equipment may become an attractive challenge to violence-prone students.

During 11 years at the beginning of my career, I worked as the psychiatrist for a California Youth Authority facility for 400 adolescent and young adult, delinquent woman. I became personally involved with reducing the unhappiness of what I was sure were some of the unhappiest young women in the school. Then, as now, I did not prescribe psychiatric drugs. I only counseled and supervised other counselors. I realized that girls were not as violent as boys, but our girls had a much higher rate of unhappiness than the girls found in any public school. Nevertheless, during my 11-year tenure at this school there were many fewer "girl-fights" than occurred in most public high schools.

What I did, which the counselors in a violence-prevention program would need to do if the program were to be successful, was I made it my business to get to know two specific groups of girls. The first group was obvious; it included the girls we knew from their records had a history of violence or had a way of dressing or wearing their hair that provoked negative attention in our school. That would be similar to the obvious trench coat Mafia group at Columbine.

But it was the much less obvious second group that was the key to the success we had in preventing violence. This group was made up of girls who were most in touch with what was going on in the school. They knew who was unhappy and what the unhappiness was about. Such a group exists in every high school, it just takes time to determine who comprises it.

These girls for the most part liked the reform school. They appreciated what we were trying to do, and they did not want our school marred with violence any more than we did. To find out who they were, I spent a lot of time hanging out in the cottages or in the school. I ate lunch with the girls and talked to the housemothers and teachers to get suggestions of whom I should see. When I found one and talked to her enough so she began to trust me, she usually directed me to others. After a while I developed a reputation at the school for helping the girls that they suggested to me. Very often when I would call a girl to my office, that same girl had heard about what I did and wanted to talk with me.

I did not even have to guarantee that I would keep what the girls told me confidential. In fact, I told them not to tell me anything that could get them into serious trouble with any girl or her friends that she recommended to me. But, they still told me because they knew that if someone was a danger to herself or others, I would try to handle it without telling more than I had to. But that did not mean that I kept anything that was potentially harmful away from the superintendent. Basically, the girls trusted the superintendent and me to never use their information to get anyone punished or in trouble. Occasionally, a girl had to be segregated for a short time until we could resolve the problem. It was a narrow line to walk, but mostly I was able to stay on it.

The violence-prevention counselor is not a police officer who seeks out and punishes wrongdoers. Even in the girls' school, none of the girls I dealt with was involved in a serious crime. They might be planning to do something wrong, or they may have done something wrong, but to find this out was not my role. My role was prevention, and the only way I can prevent violence or any other undesirable behavior is to build a strong satisfying relationship with the unhappiest students and with the students who can help me find them. A few students played both roles, the source of information and also the subject of a problem.

I cannot overestimate the importance of doing this. In Columbine, the trench coat Mafia were well known. That at least two of them were potentially violent was learned too late. What seemed to render them less dangerous was they were good students. But that is no protection against their being violent; I'm sure the Unabomber was a very good student. What all these violent students share is exactly what the violence-prevention program is designed to address. They lack good relationships with warm, caring responsible adults. The job of the VPP counselor is to be that adult for these students. The success of the program will be directly related to how well the counselors can do this.

My contention that these students are disconnected from responsible caring adults is supported by one of the most important, and yet least known, research programs I have ever read. Everyone who works in a school should read this research, called Protecting Adolescents from Harm (Resnick et al., 1997). It could just as well have had a subtitle, Protecting Others From Harmful Adolescents. What this extensive research points out conclusively is that only two groups of people can prevent adolescents from harming themselves and others: parents and teachers.

At the Ventura School, many of these unhappy girls became my biggest successes. I succeeded because I was able to convince them that I did not want to punish them, I only wanted to get to know them and to help them. The idea that an adult authority figure would deal with them when they were unhappy and not try to blame, punish, or even excuse them for what they were doing was an approach that very few adolescents had experienced. Klebold and Harris did not have this kind of relationship with their parents or with any teacher in school. Most adults look at young people in trouble as if they are guilty, and if the adult is to relate to them, they have to prove their innocence.

It is not that their parents or teachers did not try. I'm sure they did, but because of what happened, apparently no adult succeeded with these two young men. The reason they didn't succeed is that neither their parents nor their teachers knew how to make this relationship. But this inability to relate is not restricted to adults and teenagers. In my book, Choice Theory (1998), I claim that the inability to relate or connect is a problem for everyone in our society. It is the root cause of marital, family, school, and workplace problems. In fact, I further claim (p. 9) that we are no better able to relate to each other at the end of the Twentieth Century than we were at its beginning. We have made great technical progress and some political progress. I defy anyone to identify any large group of people anywhere in the world that is relating better to one another now than it was at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. For example, there is no evidence that husbands and wives are more happily married as of the year 2000 than they were in 1900 (Popenoe & Whitehead, 1999).

In Choice Theory (1998), I contend that because of the psychology that 99% of the people in the world use - what I call external control psychology - it would be difficult to reduce any of the human problems such as violence, unloving sex, mental illness, or addiction. To have any chance of solving these problems, it is important to give up external control and replace it with choice theory. While the details of choice theory are too much to explain in this brief article, it is what I did at the Ventura School and exactly what I recommend that the VPP counselors do.

The world is dominated by what I call the seven deadly habits of external control psychology - criticizing, blaming, complaining, nagging, threatening, punishing, and bribing. A bribe is a reward with the aim to control. These habits destroy relationships and, in doing so, cause almost all the problems with which people struggle. In actual fact, the problems such as mental illnesses are the way people choose to resist the control of others or keep their own anger in check.

Choice theory contends that whenever people have difficulty with others, they should never use the deadly habits. Instead, they should choose only to do what could bring them closer or keep them closer. Doing this is not difficult. In fact, whenever we have any problem with our long-term good friends, we do this all the time. We do not use the seven deadly habits because we don't want to lose our friends. Unfortunately, when we have difficulty with almost everyone else, we immediately put the seven habits into practice and make things worse.

Finally, although I can only touch on it here, we will never have the kind of success in school that we so desperately want until we can get external control out of the classroom and replace it with choice theory. Just as a rising tide raises all ships, we need to do far more than most schools do now to create classrooms in which almost all students both succeed and enjoy school.

(For additional articles by William Glasser, visit his website)

Dr. William Glasser is an internationally recognized psychiatrist who is best known as the author of Reality Therapy, a method of psychotherapy he created in 1965 and that is now taught all over the world. In 2005, he was presented with the Life Achievement Award by the International Center for the Study of Psychiatry and Psychology for his enormous influence as a psychotherapist and author.

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  • The Ongoing Discussion for February will feature Dr. William Glasser, upcoming Forum 2006 keynoter, discussing his article which appears in this newsletter. Two hour conference calls will be held on February 16th and 17th. For call-in information, contact bill@in2in.org
  • UK Deming Forum to be held May 23-25 at the Robinsons Centre, Wyboston, Bedfordshire
  • The 50th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences to be held July 9-14 at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California
  • The 16th Annual Pegasus Conference, "Leading Beyond the Horizon - Strategies for Bringing Tomorrow into Today's Choices," to be held November 13-15, Waltham, Massachusetts

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