Metal detectors at a high school in Gary, Ind. (Getty Images)

(The Root) — Gov. Mitt Romney, in response to a woman who asked about limiting the availability of assault weapons during the second 2012 presidential debate, said this: "We need moms and dads helping raise kids … gosh, to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone … "  

In a rare moment of agreement, President Obama responded, "We agree on the importance of parents and the importance of schools, because I do believe that if our young people have opportunity, then they're less likely to engage in these kinds of violent acts."

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It was curious how a question about limiting assault weapons inspired moral invectives on single-parent households. In the 1980s violent crime among black youth and the number of black youth living in single-parent households both sharply increased, leaving reasonable suspicions that young African Americans were reacting to a more fragile family structure with violence. However, the relationship between the two ceased to exist in the late 1990s, as violent crime among black youth plummeted, while the percentage of black children living in single-parent households continued to rise. Today, the rate of violence among black youth is less than it was before 1980, when more than half of black children were being raised in two-parent households. The percentage of black children being raised in single-parent households is at a historic high (see Figure).

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The myth that black youth violence is rising in tandem with black single-parent households has deeper implications than the semantics of a presidential debate. From the late 1980s to present, strategies to keep schools safe are typically based on this assumption that black youth violence is precipitously escalating. For this entry of Show Me the Numbers, we separate the myths from the realities of school violence among black youth, and offer strategies to defeat school violence without defeating ourselves.

Law and Disorder in Schools for Black Children 

 Last month's Show Me the Numbers article noted that police made 2,546 school-based arrests (75 percent black) between September 2011 and February 2012 in Chicago. More recently, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Meridian, Miss., over civil violations of black schoolchildren. In Meridian, schoolchildren are handcuffed, arrested and detained for days for "minor school rule infractions" (pdf) without due process. Meridian was one of many districts that the DOJ cited for creating a "school-to-prison" pipeline for black students.

 Nationwide, predominately black, inner-city schools place a higher premium on security than suburban and rural schools. In 2009, I was on a panel with Ron Huberman, who was at the time the chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools. He spoke candidly about differences in the way that predominantly white and predominantly black schools deal with fighting. He said at predominantly white schools, a fight typically results in both students being separated and isolated with an adult, ultimately resulting in a formal mediation process. Contrarily, fighting at predominantly black schools often results in both students being arrested by school police officers. It is worth noting that Huberman is a former police officer.

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As I point out in my second Breaking Barriers report (pdf), nationwide, 26 percent of black students report passing through metal detectors when entering school compared with 5.4 percent of white students. At the same time, black students are significantly more likely to feel unsafe at their school, and less likely to perceive empathy and respect from their teachers. Many black students are stuck in educational systems that operate more like correctional facilities and less like institutions of learning. The idea that black kids need to get a "boot in the butt" before receiving a book in the hand is responsible for many gross injustices committed against black students in their quest for a quality education.

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Unfortunately, many in the black community passively accept the idea that black children, particularly black males, are more prone to violence and require tougher safety measures to ensure that criminal elements from their neighborhoods do not corrupt the school environment. However, my research, which I will explain later, clearly demonstrates that establishing a school on a foundation of security has unintended consequences. If black people are ever to challenge the "school-to-prison pipeline," we must first challenge our own negative perceptions about black students, their parents and their communities. 

One of the most well-publicized strategies to deal with school violence came from the 1989 film Lean on Me, which chronicled the experiences of New Jersey high-school principal Joe Clark, played by Morgan Freeman. In the movie, Clark rounds up and expels the bad kids, and restores order to the school by monitoring the halls with a baseball bat and locking the entrance. His character was based on a real-life principal who eventually became the head of a juvenile correctional facility.

Years later in 1995, the movie Dangerous Minds gave naive liberals and callous conservatives another peephole into the experience of a real-life change-maker. The movie was based on the autobiography My Posse Don't Do Homework, written by a former U.S. Marine who became a high-school teacher. Both of these movies present a Hollywood caricature of inner-city high-school students, and idealize correctional or military-style interventions to deal with inner-city schools.

Creating More Opportunities for Black Students

"How do we create more opportunities for students to talk to their teachers?" This is a question that a black, male middle-school student asked me in front of about 300 of his peers at a school assembly.

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A volunteer at the school who admired my research had invited me to be a guest speaker. I had equal admiration for the volunteer so I came to the school at his last-minute request. Upon my arrival the volunteer introduced me to the principal and a teacher, who cautioned me about the unruly dispositions of the students. "Most of our students receive free lunch," the teacher stated with a curious degree of consternation.

When the students entered the assembly I told them, "I'm less interested in talking to you, and more interested in hearing from you. Therefore, I'm going to keep my comments brief and open up the floor to your questions and comments."

After I opened the floor to questions, the slow-to-warm students quickly began to get involved, asking questions about my experiences as a teen, as well as questions about school life in general. One of the students recited a poem.

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Overall, I was impressed by the students' inquiries, as they showed humor, candor, insight and intelligence. This is why I was dumbfounded at the conclusion of the assembly when the principal chastised the students for not asking any questions about Howard University. His parting words to the young men were, "From now on, we're instituting a 'zero-tolerance policy' for sagging pants … so tell your mama if she sends you to school without a belt, we're sending you right back home!"

He completely disregarded the student's meaningful inquiry about student-teacher interactions, instead using the assembly as an opportunity to grandstand, "tough talk" and introduce an ill-conceived zero-tolerance policy. Such principals, who like to summon their inner Joe Clark, are well-intentioned and deserve our respect. However, many of their methods to create a secure environment for their students are ineffective and obscure learning priorities at the school. 

Three years ago, CNN reported that a school security administrator for the U.S. Department of Education revealed that the Obama administration plans to create secure schools by improving overall education, getting children more involved in their studies and strengthening school communities. These changes will coincide with a decrease in spending for metal detectors and security personnel and an increase in school counseling services. 

Over the past four years, I have conducted research that examines the influence of gangs, drugs and delinquency at school by analyzing the response patterns of tens of thousands of students who completed surveys for the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education. From the data, I have gained the following insights into effective strategies for educators, counselors and school administrators to cultivate an environment to eliminate school violence:

1. Elevating academic standards at the school is a strategy for reducing school violence. School administrators should regularly monitor the collective GPA of their schools, and devise strategies to cultivate the academic identity of their students.

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2. Coping resources and multicultural training should be allocated to teachers who work in tough learning environments. My research suggests that black males in schools with more gang activity may be more likely to be falsely identified as gang members.

3. Schools should measure holistic qualities of their environment. Specifically, schools should measure their: ability to make students feel supported and respected; skill at creating forums for students to express themselves; and ability to critique students without making them feel bad about themselves. Incentives for teachers to become involved with students outside of the classroom, such as through clubs, sports and other activities, could also cultivate more cordial student-teacher relationships.

4. School administrators who find metal detectors and security officers necessary should examine whether these strategies increase insecurities among teachers and students. The wide racial gap that exists between students who pass through metal detectors when they enter school could be evidence of a larger problem of black and Latino students being treated with less deference than white students at school. All security measures should be implemented with compassion and respect. I talk more about this here.

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5. School administrators should take specific measures to secure restrooms and routes to school, and determine whether any truancy or lack of participation in school activity is connected to threats of violence. My research suggests that school violence typically takes place in locations that are not monitored by teachers, such as restrooms. Also, since students most vulnerable to gang violence are more likely to walk to school, school administrators should build liaisons with the community, and work with surrounding neighbors to reduce violence outside of the school.

6. Policies should emphasize the role of extracurricular activities in reducing school violence and improving academic success. Students in schools with less gang activity are more likely to participate in extracurricular activity. Routinely, school administrators should survey students to gauge the overall percentage who are participating in spirit groups (for example, cheerleading or pep club); performing arts (for example, band, orchestra or drama); and/or academic clubs (for example, debate team, honor society, math club or computer club). If the percentage is low, specific strategies should be implemented to promote school activities.

Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is a tenured associate professor at Howard University, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education and contributing education editor for The Root. He can be contacted at itoldson@howard.edu. Follow him on Twitter.

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Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of the QEM Network, a professor at Howard University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education. Previously, Toldson was appointed by President Barack Obama to be the executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He also served as senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and contributing education editor for The Root, where he debunked some of the most pervasive myths about African Americans in his Show Me the Numbers column. Follow him on Twitter.

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