Students shouldn’t shoot one another. So far, everyone seems to agree. Everyone also seems to agree that the recent spate of apparently random school shootings cries out for urgent action of some sort, and that the more usual phenomena of gangs, drug use, and petty theft should be addressed as well.
School violence has therefore produced a considerable amount of government action. State legislatures have enacted statutes either specifically permitting or specifically prohibiting corporal punishment as a disciplinary tool. The federal government sets up grant programs that require implementation of specific programs as a condition of grant money. And individual schools impose their own restrictions on student behavior. These restrictions are government action whose constitutionality and policy soundness need to be evaluated. But the debate over school-violence prevention often forgets that incentives are at least as important as willpower or money.
No one has discovered a silver-bullet policy that will end school violence cheaply and quickly; in the real world, effectiveness is hard to measure, and most programs that have been measured work in some circumstances and not in others. While some programs are clearly better than others at individual schools, few programs succeed so unquestionably that they can be implemented everywhere. For example, more discipline, such as zero-tolerance laws, may be effective for certain schools where violence is a major problem, but may impose too harsh a discipline for schools where violence is rare. More security, such as metal detectors, may be cost-effective when weapons-carrying is widespread, but may not be worthwhile when bullying, theft, and fistfights predominate. More education, such as violence-prevention and anger-management curricula, sounds good in theory, but these programs have been rarely evaluated in practice, while the evidence there is is not promising.
School safety therefore requires flexibility and accountability. Individual schools should be encouraged to experiment and find what works for them. And, in their experimentation, schools should be subject to the discipline of competition. Schools choose their anti-violence programs; parents choose their children’s schools.
All this can be accomplished either in the public or in the private sector. Charter-school legislation and decentralization of public-school systems are ways to encourage flexibility and accountability in the public sector; vouchers are one way of doing the same in the private sector. Private schools are typically both freer to experiment and more likely to lose students as a result of bad decisions than are public schools, and because they are chosen, they are also less hindered by the due-process restrictions that make punishment more difficult in government-run schools. It is therefore not surprising that private schools have a better safety record.
Part II of this paper discusses the extent of school violence. Part III summarizes the mixed research on the different categories of violence-prevention methods. Part IV argues that policies that encourage private schooling—or otherwise improve the incentives of school administrators—are also likely to reduce school violence. It also includes the results of personal interviews with principals of several Los Angeles-area Catholic schools. The section further suggests that compulsory-education laws may be contributing to violence in public schools.
- conflict resolution,
- school choice,
- compulsory schooling