Sally Singer Horwatt, Ph.D.

Clinical Psychologist


This article is one of a series of radio spots prepared by Sally Singer Horwatt, Ph.D. for 







Violence in the Schools 

While attempting to comprehend the seemingly random, unprovoked 
murder of innocent people by teenagers, I found myself disturbed 
by the shrill, self-serving histrionics of the media and lobbying groups.  The 13 students at Columbine High School,  who were shot to death and the televised scenes of human misery were disturbing enough without having to listen to the pronouncements of self-proclaimed experts.  One journalist demanded to know, "Why are America's schools turning into killing fields?" Another asked, "...what this bodes in a society where we have so many things and so much, and yet we can create monsters that can go in and shoot their peers?" Everybody was pushing his own cause as though this were all a simple matter....more church....less television.... I needed to turn down the volume enough to think.  Personally, I'd walk through Columbine High School right this minute...and through the schools in Pearl, Paducah, Jonesboro, and 
Springfield.  These schools are not "killing fields"....Kosovo is a killing field. I'd like to talk to you about what we know and what we don't know about violence in the schools and make some suggestions about 
what we can do. 
First of all, I have to say there is no sure way to identify in advance  those students who will engage in violent behavior.  In my career, I have personally met people whose birth into families with psychotic mothers, absent or alcoholic fathers, in high crime, low income neighborhoods should have guaranteed a life of degradation and crime.  It didn't.   I have met people, who by all measures, should be numbered among the upper-crust of society, who are among the dross. This does not mean we are helpless.  First, how can you evaluate a potentially violent young person?  If you find yourself feeling uncomfortable about a person, is it because he says he could be violent?  Sources of information about this person include himself, parents, and, as appropriate, peers and law enforcement officials.  Has the youngster made verbal threats or been aggressive toward someone?  Does he have a plan?  A weapon? Does  he tell you situations in which he would be violent?  Has there been a recent provocation or conflict in his life?...any extraneous stresses or life changes?  Are there any anticipated negative events coming up for him?  Is he angry, or preoccupied with injustice.  Is there an overcontrolled hostility?  Is he depressed, hopeless, or convinced that he's a victim?  Has there been past aggression toward others?  Is he preoccupied with violence through games, movies, novels?  Can he communicate with you when he is stressed?  If the answers to these questions are positive, see if you can get him to the school psychologist and alert other authorities and warn potential victims.  But remember, until he has done something, he is innocent.  We have other values to preserve in our society. 
I'd like  to place juvenile homicide in perspective.  Then, I will tell you some things that have been done in Virginia, and make some suggestions about what you can do to avert further disasters. The data on violence is pretty consistent that it is 6% of our youth who are aggressive.  Only about 6% of the juvenile population are arrested and less than 1/2 of 1% are arrested for violent crimes.  And only a fraction of the violent offenders commit a homicide. Most homicides are committed by adults. 
What are the causes of violence?  The causes are multi-factorial. Many people like to blame our society.  They point to violence on the television.  If that's true, and given that there are more television sets in this country than there are toilets, there should be more violence than there is. 
However, we don't have to wait until we have all the answers to do some positive things. Here are some immediate actions we can take: 
The schools can maintain clear written policies on school discipline, building security and crisis response.  They can enforce school discipline. The schools can initiate school-wide programs, beginning in the elementary school, to teach social competency skills.  For example, teaching kids how to solve problems without violence, how to get in a group of kids engaged in an on-going game, how to maintain appropriate physical distance, and other social skills that some kids seem to know instinctively and about which some kids are clueless. 
Programs to identify and stop bullying should be developed. Parents can talk to their children about their problems, fears and concerns.  Take them seriously, non-judgmentally and give them your support.  Discuss with them how some depictions of violence in the media are unrealistic.  When Arnold Schwarzenegger gets up having been repeatedly hit in the face and kicked in the head and continues fighting and pursing his quarry, let them know how unrealistic this is.   Be an example. 
Community agencies and law enforcement official can provide after- 
school programs, supervised recreation, youth employment and 
community service activities.  Keep them busy. 
For further information, you might want to go to the Virginia Youth Violence Website at 
(See the link below.)  Led by Dr. Peter Sheras, this program was begun in 1993 and constitutes some of the best proactive measures taken by a multidisciplinary team to prevent violence.  You can reach Dr. Sheras at the University of Virginia Curry Programs in Clinical and School Psychology. 
Virginia Youth Violence Website

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