THE SPECIAL instructor quickly learned how much ground she had to cover. A brief videotape -- one involving a staged misunderstanding between two youths that escalated into insults, a sudden crowd of instigators and a fight -- was about to begin. "Raise your hand at any point at which you think this fight could have been avoided," the instructor said. The tape ran through to its conclusion, and not one student raised a hand.
That story involved an effort to produce a violence-prevention curriculum for students in Boston, but its meaning is generally applicable. Much attention has been paid to youths who are coerced into substance abuse, and there is a growing awareness of how studious urban students can suffer from so-called friends who criticize their academic interests. Less attention has been devoted to the fact that violence has become an accepted way to avenge slights or solve disputes, and the evidence is all too common. Consider last week's drive-by shooting at Fifth and O streets in Northwest Washington. The victims ranged in age from 6 to 14. All of the suspects are juveniles.
In the Prince George's County schools, the most recently released statistics show a 44 percent increase in the number of assaults at public schools by students against other students, teachers and other adults. Incidents in the county's elementary schools accounted for more than two-thirds of the increase, and serious injuries rose by 19 percent.
The Prince George's schools have a sufficiently tough discipline policy, but something more positive is also needed. We're talking about learning how to resolve disputes peacefully and how to determine that some perceived "slights" are unimportant or unintentional. Students are regularly praised for maintaining high academic honors. Some form of recognition also ought to go to students who, when facing a potential confrontation, manage to show good sense by avoiding a fight. It can be a real achievement for a student to resist the urge to instigate or escalate trouble and instead persuade others to shake hands and move on.
The growing toll among area youths in suspensions and expulsions, arrests and criminal charges and severe injuries and deaths cries out for closer and more imaginative response. If students can learn to shun those who drink and drive, if they can grasp the importance of turning schools into "drug-free zones," then similar campaigns should be organized to combat the spread of violent acts among the young.