NEW ORLEANS — You can teach ethical decision-making in schools, but ending violent crime in the city also requires a jobs program.
New Orleans can celebrate a third straight year in which she saw a decline in the number of murders (150 in 2014) — Happy New Year! But hold off on the fireworks because the city also saw a 24 percent increase in the overall number of non-fatal shootings.
Politicians and the police department are certainly appreciative of statistical change.
(But should they really be thanking bad aim and advancements in medicine?) Nevertheless, the murder rate in New Orleans is more than three times the national average for comparably sized cities.
However, the number of youth killed has not moved from 2013 when 12 victims age 17 or younger were classified as homicides. Teens are both victims and perpetrators of violent crime, but all teens involved should be considered victims.
Murderers aren’t born; they’re made. The question then becomes who are the teachers of violence? While the overwhelming majority of children and adults learn why taking the life of another isn’t good for anyone, some still don’t. Consequently, schools have no choice but to develop skills that are literally lifesaving. Conflicts and opportunities for violence are inevitable. Many conflicts start in school or are brought into school out of neighborhood strife. Schools are natural hubs for conflict resolution. This is why schools must explicitly teach students how to resolve dissonance before it blows up.
Disagreements shouldn’t lead to murder; they should lead to resolution. Schools can’t rely on interpretations of Romeo and Juliet to teach students effective ways to resolve conflicts. Let’s get real with teaching ethical decision-making and conflict resolution.
Schools will never completely replace community, family and religion in developing good citizens. But, they can demand fundamental ethical understanding, the same way we demand that students learn to read and write well enough to vote, work and live.
This is why the announcement that the city’s health department is partnering with the Center for Restorative Approaches might be the game changer that schools need to prevent future fatalities.
Restorative approaches use the solution circle, which “brings together individuals who are expressing tension to prevent an incident, conflict or crime from occurring.” They incorporate community conferences to convene all parties “affected by an incident, conflict or crime to speak about what happened, how they have been affected, and to decide collaboratively how to repair harm when harm has occurred.”
New Orleans has been introduced to these approaches before. The Center for Restorative Approaches is based in New Orleans and has worked with partner schools throughout the city. The organization Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools also called for alternatives to suspension, which ostensibly removes opportunities to learn new ways to resolve conflicts.
Maybe the bully pulpit of the mayor’s office can compel all schools in the highly decentralized system of schools to participate.
However, if local officials, community activists, and neighbors do not address individual and systemic causes of violence, restorative approaches will be as effective as our newly acquired gym memberships.
Conversations on violence seldom creates action where a healthy percentage of the poor moves into the middle class. Despite encouraging evidence that suggests otherwise, we don’t talk enough about increasing the living wage or finding employment that can replace the loss of high paying blue-collar jobs.
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Don’t get me wrong. Poor environments do not excuse murder, armed robbery, or rape. They do not excuse parents from making sure their children go to school. Being poor does not mean you have to break the law to survive. Most poor people do not kill, steal, or hurt people.
However, if you don’t honestly address all root causes for violent crime then you’re essentially blaming students for the environment they were born into. In addition, we have too many recent examples that make police serving as primary moral enforcers of society extremely problematic. Residents must internalize the belief that the city is a school and in it are classrooms that are poorly resourced.
It takes a citywide commitment from all residents to make a city into a rich educational environment.
One of my favorite quotes by philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh helps explain why we need to consider structural causes. Hanh wrote, “When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look into reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce.” We constantly blame children and their family as being the problem.
Certainly motivation and individual discernment are critical. But it’s not enough. Let’s all make a New Year’s resolution to teach peace by changing the culture of blaming children by removing the fertile grounds for violence.
Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.