Giving Teens a Voice


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This Executive Summary is organized as follows:
1.0 Summary and Observations
1.1 Some Quotes from the Participants...they want to be heard
1.2 Attitude Toward Violence
1.3 Morality and Values
1.4 Respect
1.5 Discipline: Be Strict and Firm ... but fair
1.6 Goal Setting and Life Style
1.7 Self Control
1.8 Parents
1.9 Teachers, Schools and Administrators
1.10 Counselors
1.11 The Community and Law Enforcement

Section 1.0 Summary and Observations

At the conclusion of the Teen Think Tank on School Violence, Julie T., a high school sophomore from Birmingham, declared: "We generated many new ideas of profound insight and many ideas that are simple, but all of them could be used to reduce school violence." She and 15 other students participated recently in a marathon brainstorming session about school violence using a computerized electronic meeting system.

 The electronic meeting system (or EMS) software from Ventana Corporation is called GroupSystems. It is a powerful productivity tool that helps teams work together better and faster, to reach consensus, prioritize ideas and resolve conflict. Under the direction of an expert facilitator, EMS can enable a small group to produce a prodigious amount of work in an incredibly small amount of time.

 During the two sessions, July 11 & 17, the students brainstormed about a number of questions relating to school violence and generated more than 800 ideas. They categorized their ideas into logical groupings, ranked them and then eliminated all but the best ones. The very best ideas in each category were then used to produce the material for this report. They also used EMS to name the report: "The Teen Think Tank Answers an SOS (Save Our Schools)." At the conclusion of the second session, the students were unanimous in their praise for the process and for the professional support they received. "It simply could not have been done any other way," one student observed.

 The findings of the students can be summarized as follows:

  • We must deal with the causes of violence rather than building bigger, stronger walls to protect ourselves from violence.
  • Morality and values must be taught to children at home, in school, and in the community.
  • Students must be treated with respect, fairness, courtesy, and acceptance by teachers and administrators.
  • Violence must be dealt with quickly, fairly, and with significant consequences for the offender.
  • This Think Tank project should be continued with other groups.
The students' very best ideas about coping with violence are presented in Section 3; and this material was then used as the basis for their essays, which appear in Section 4. The students' candid testimonials about EMS and the Think Tank process appear in Section 5. Their complete and unedited brainstorming results appear in the appendix (Section 6). (This may be of interest just in case the reader is mildly curious about the 800+ ideas that did not "make the cut" during their prioritization process.) A summary of the students' findings, including some adult observations, appears in Section 1; and a description of the think-tank process is provided in Section 2.

 These students are idealistic, full of creative ideas drawn from first hand experience, and overflowing with youthful enthusiasm; but they lack the power and authority to carry out their ideas. They look to you for that. They ask only to be given serious consideration.

 [Editor's note: for consistency with the remainder of this report, student comments taken directly from the Teen Think Tank session material are italicized.]

 This section is a synopsis of the students' findings about school violence. It contains a number of student comments taken from the Teen Think Tank sessions, some of which have been edited slightly for clarity. It also contains a number of adult observations about the actions and comments of the teen participants.

Section1.1 Some Quotations from the Participants...they want to be heard:

 "I feel the process, the product (EMS), and the people involved did a marvelous job in attacking the issue of violence in schools as a whole... not just focusing in on the issue of school shootings as I had feared might happen, and I hope you, the reader, do the same. School violence is a very large issue encompassing murder, rape, sexual harassment, fighting, bullying, abuse from teachers/employees, favoritism that gets out of hand, etc., etc., etc. I hope you examine our work carefully...I think you will find it useful." Mark S, Age 15, Male, Sophomore

"The participants of the TEEN THINK TANK came together with one objective in mind--to seek ways to prevent school violence. I have seen many ideas that have shown profound insight and many ideas which are simple, but all of which could be used to solve our problem. All we need is a chance to have our ideas heard, so please don't take one look at this and throw it in the trash. Now that we teens have voiced our thoughts, we want them to be heard." Julie T, Age 15, Female, Sophomore

"As students, everyone here is faced with going to school with a chance of violence occurring. I'm glad that finally the students are asked about their opinions on this subject." Crystal V, Age 16, Female, Junior

Section 1.2 Attitude toward Violence

"Approach violence as a character flaw and deal with it," was the comment of one student. "Do not presume that violence is inevitable," said another. "To overcome violence, we must confront it, not escape it," said a third student. They felt that approaches that build higher walls and better metal detectors are, as one student put it, "...straight out of Lord of the Flies." One can see from the compelling quotes above that the students considered this subject very seriously and they hope their work will be taken seriously.

1.3 Morality and Values

  • The students think that it is within the scope of the school to teach morality and values based on societal mores, but without religious overtones. Violence is wrong in any culture. Stealing is wrong in any culture. Telling the truth and accepting responsibility for one's actions are right in all cultures. Students have to learn that there are some absolute values that have certain consequences if they are abused.


  • Students should also be taught to respect the values of others. One family may have values that are different and that must be respected. The main responsibility for teaching this should be in the family, but that's just not possible in many families today. Perhaps ...the PTA or another responsible community group could take a lead in offering seminars and classes in values.


  • Teenagers should be taught the value of the family. They may have no control over the circumstances of the family they grow up in, but they can surely influence the family that they form later in life. The family is held in pretty low esteem at some schools.


In lieu of the family, teachers can have a tremendous influence in helping students see the worth of character and values. The student who learns that hitting someone is wrong in second grade will be less likely to really hurt someone in high school. The schools cannot be totally responsible for correcting the problems of society. However, it is apparent that schools have a major potential for influencing children and every effort should be made to influence them for good.

1.4 Respect

 The students spent a lot of time dealing with the issue of respect. They feel that the lack of respect between teachers and students is a primary source of the frustration that leads to violence. If the violent offender felt respected, appreciated, and accepted by teachers and peers, the frustration that leads to violence might be mitigated. Teachers are encouraged to take the time to show respect to their students.

  • Stand in the doorway and personally greet every student, every class, every day.
  • Administer discipline evenhandedly without regard to grades, athletic prowess, or style of clothing.
  • Show courtesy to students.
  • Be open and receptive to students' questions and ideas.
  • Let students be individuals rather than forcing them into a mold.
Students were no easier on themselves...
  • Don't put people down because of their attire.
  • Don't make fun of or talk down to others.
  • Remember that teachers are human too and may have lots of pressures that the students may not know about.
  • Remember that a lack of respect creates isolation.
  • Never, ever disrespect a teacher.
Schools are encouraged to deal with the respect issue...
  • Make sure all discipline programs treat students with respect.
  • Hold seminars for faculty and staff on issues of respect.
  • Screen prospective employees on respect issues.
  • Expect courtesy consistently from all faculty and staff toward students.
  • Remember that students are the reason for having schools, not the curse of the profession.
  • Sanction or remove teachers who disrespect students
  • The school system should have floating teachers so that each teacher could have a six or nine-weeks sabbatical for rest and recuperation every three or four years.
  • Keep score. Don't insult students by creating superficial incentives such as "satisfactory." If a student fails, have a plan for helping him deal with it and recover.
The students think that teachers and administrators are second only to parents in being effective role models for respect and courtesy. If they show respect, they will most likely receive it. It will take time to change long-standing attitudes; schools should start early.

1.5 Discipline: Be Strict and Firm ... but fair

 The students were unanimous in encouraging punishment to be appropriate, immediate, and directed at the offender rather than all students. They agreed that removing disruptive students is necessary for the learning process to continue. Not once did they suggest that violence or disruption should be dealt with sparingly. Someone even suggested going back to stocks and public thrashings.

 However, they suggested that if a student is removed from a classroom, he should be sent to a trained counselor for assistance in dealing with his behavior. If it is necessary to punish a student, they wanted the punishment to be memorable. Some implied that work-detention such as cleaning school grounds, mopping the halls, or cleaning the restrooms might be appropriate.

 They kept coming back to fairness. Some students can get away with anything because they make good grades or are good athletes. A "one-for-all" policy can be equally unfair. Creative approaches could make discipline effective and fair.

  • Serious violence, racism, sexual abuse absolutely cannot be tolerated. Offending students and teachers should be punished to the extent of the law and offending teachers should be fired. School is a privilege not a right and violent acts forfeit this privilege.
  • Removing the disruptive child to a special, demanding program in which parents have a part to play will improve the educational opportunities of all kids, good kids and those who choose to be difficult.
  • A one-for-all discipline or educational policy is not the best approach for dealing with education or discipline. Each child is different.
  • Develop discipline programs that focus on the offender, not the student body as a whole.
  • The students want the community to enforce the laws that fit the crime. If a student commits a violent act, they should quickly learn that attending school is a privilege, not a right. Remove the offenders from the environment immediately.
  • It is extremely important that we encourage and nurture positive behavior. Ideally, students should have lots of freedom, and use it appropriately. At this point, we need to use freedom to achieve that goal. Those who can handle freedoms should not be limited by those who can not.
  • Discipline programs should be started early. Use the court system to hold parents responsible. Build a basis for demanding and expecting good behavior from parents, kids, teachers, etc.
  • Develop consistent expectations for good behavior, not rules for dealing with bad behavior. Expectations can be uniform; rules cannot. Some schools require hall monitors, others do not. Some require no standing in parking lot, others do not. The plan should shift attention to rewards and privileges for good behavior rather than the rules for bad behavior.
How is discipline related to violence? The students suggest that frustration, aggravated by unfair discipline and lack of acceptance and respect contributes greatly to the likelihood of violence. They are not asking for anybody to be coddled, but dealt with firmly and fairly.

1.6 Goal setting and Life Style

  • A student who has gone through the process of identifying and developing realistic life goals, and who has mentally committed himself/herself to achieving those goals, will be less likely to commit acts of violence. Ideally, their parents and teachers should also commit to helping the student work toward achievement of their life goals. This brings a focus to both the student and those who care about him/her that is largely missing in individuals who get involved in violence.
  • Conference with parents and students throughout the year setting direction and tracking response in these life-style issues. Consider a life style IEP that teachers, parents and students agree to follow to help set life style issues. Ultimately, life style is the concern of the parents. Perhaps the PTA, etc., could have life style seminars for parents.
  • If the conception of what is popular could be altered to condemn violent and amoral behavior, then violent acts committed by students would decline rapidly.
1.7 Self Control

 The students are confident that self-control is the ultimate solution to violence. If each person has his own life under control, the issue of violence in society will be moot. Self control is another issue that is best taught in the home by word and by example. One thing that parents should not do is rely on somebody else to teach their kids self control...

  • Students should learn to walk away from a violent situation.
  • Students can learn techniques to "cool off" when they are angry.
  • The community could offer classes in self control for parents and students
There is a way to teach self control at an early age, whether in school, church, or the home. More self control could prevent a great deal of violence.

1.8 Parents

 There is no doubt among the students that parents should play the greatest role in preventing teen violence by teaching their children morality, character, and family values. In addition, the parents should work closely with the schools to ensure their children receive the best education as well as respect, encouragement, and opportunity from the school

. Parents should teach their kids at a young age that violence is not the answer and that good moral and ethical standards are. Another thing that parents must do when raising their kids is to teach them to respect others.

 One adult observed: "Many parents are too busy, many teachers have become fearful -- of students, violent acts, lawsuits, etc., - and, consequently, students often feel they have become anonymous captives within a highly 'de-personalized' public school system."

 Maybe, just maybe, there is a possible solution to part of the problem of violence in schools: If parents and teachers would once again become personally and visibly involved in the lives of the students ... and if they would regularly demonstrate a mixture of genuine personal concern coupled with "tough love," ... then perhaps students would have their "sense of self worth" restored and some of the frustration that often leads to violent behavior would be dissipated.

1.9 Teachers, Schools and Administrators

If teachers stress self-control, and develop strong moral and ethical foundations in students, violent acts could be fewer in number. The actions of a teacher bear tremendous influence on his or her students. To effectively teach ethics and morality, the teacher must therefore set the example.

  • Teach character in school, and not just as a two minute thing every day.
  • Consider behavior modification techniques such as bringing a convicted prisoner to talk to students or showing gross pictures of the result of crime and violence.
  • Part of each week's curriculum would be a class in relationships. A most compelling statement by a student: "We've got to control anger because angry people don't learn".
  • Institute programs that get people involved in extra-curricular activities. Give school credit for playing community sports, drama, fine arts, music, etc.
  • Hold required workshop for teachers in which they are taught how to be respectful to students while maintaining authority in the classroom, and warned of possible consequences that could arise should they get "out of control."
  • Teach morality and ethics in a non-religious context. Something as simple as reading Aesop's fables to a class of young children can help build a foundation of morality in the children that could be built upon as the years pass.
  • Train teachers and students in conflict management and resolution.
  • Screen all staff and faculty with background checks for a history of sexual molestation, racism, and violence and check that the employee has a personality that will promote good values and friendliness in the other employees and the students.
  • Look for new "heroes" in the school environment. The emphasis in society needs to be changed from the heroes being the people who are stronger or faster or tougher to those who are compassionate, intelligent, and who contribute to society.
  • Eliminate problem teachers and administrators. Nobody should be beyond scrutiny.
  • Nobody should have tenure just to have it. There should be a non-partisan committee in each jurisdiction to deal with problem teachers and administrators.
  • Have a program for evaluation of every teacher every year with input from parents and students. Rate the teachers on a scale of 1 to 5 for teaching, discipline, creativity, attention to the individual, etc. Let each principal have authority to address areas for improvement from every teacher without being brought into battle with AEA (the Alabama Educators Association, or teacher's union).
We are not cave men, to worship the biggest and strongest among us, and it is high time we quit acting like it. Society as a whole, but particularly the educational system, needs to drastically shift the extracurricular influence from popularity contests and athletics to intellectual competitions and academics. Academics are much more important than sports although all the glory goes to the athletes. There needs to be a balance here.

1.10 Counselors

 Enough was said about counselors to warrant a separate topic in this summary. Generally, the students do not feel comfortable talking with school counselors. They are seen as "college counselors" or someone who would talk about student problems to the rest of the school. They feel that counselors should be trained in dealing with issues rather than just handing out punishment. One student said, "Ask a person who is violent if they really like being a violent person. They may not know how to stop being violent."

  • Counselors have to be trustworthy.
  • They should be trained in counseling techniques.
  • The school should consider peer groups led by mature students to deal with acceptance issues.
  • Counselors should deal with each situation individually rather than having blanket rules.
  • Counselors can recommend appropriate community services.
  • Counselor should get the parents involved.
  • A trip to a counselor might cause an IEP to be started for that student.
Time and again, the students said that one who hears someone talking about committing violence must report it to the school. Students can't or won't report violence if they don't trust the counselors.

1.11 The Community and Law Enforcement

 The students want communities to accept, authoritatively, the responsibility for dealing with violence. When a crime such as murder, rape, arson, or theft is committed by a young adult, one who is old enough to think actions out for himself, then he should be tried and punished as an adult. "Adult" crimes require the appropriate punishment, otherwise the incorrect message is sent to the offender. When only sent to a detention center, or not punished at all, then the young adult thinks he can 'get away with it,' and may repeat the offense.

  • Law enforcement officers could go to elementary schools and talk to students about violence, the negative side of it (how bad it is), and ways to prevent it, and start early on gaining respect for themselves.
  • The communities can build and sponsor safe teen activities, neighborhood clubs, youth sports, drama groups, concerts, children's theaters, festivals, and youth orchestras. The communities could work with the school so that the students might receive school credit for participation.
  • The community could support workshops for parents so they can learn about how to cope with small issues in the home. They could also be taught how to deal with problems such as drugs, premarital sex, and violence, which are the issues that should be dealt with in a serious fashion.
  • "Have a national teen task force --the possibilities are endless."
I think whole neighborhoods and cities should get involved in preventing school violence because even if we pour our every thought out into the computer, it doesn't make any difference outside this room [unless somebody does something with it.] -- "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Society needs to take violence more seriously. It can't just be something that a few kids in Alabama brainstorm about on computers....although it is a wonderful start.

If communities and schools take an active part in leading kids towards a nonviolent behavior, then the school violence will decrease.

Copyright 1999-2000, Teen Think Tanks of America, Inc.  All rights reserved.

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