Despite many national and provincial government initiatives to keep learners safe, school violence has become worse – in frequency and intensity – to the extent that children are more likely to experience violence at school than in their homes.
The onslaught of violence has largely paralysed already vulnerable schools, especially those in historically disadvantaged communities.
And yet, the complexity of school violence – from bullying and assault to rape and murder, involving both learners and educators – tells us that policies and procedures, couched in traditional punitive measures, are not only inadequate but also inadvertently serve to further fuel the anger and violence.
By this we mean that, inasmuch as a number of learners unleash violence on peers and educators, educators unleash violence and humiliation on those in their care.
We have also seen that prescribing detailed texts of codes of conduct and school rules to both learners and parents isn’t enough to regulate the behaviour conducive to a safe and respectful school and society.
So, what is the problem with common approaches to countering violence at schools, and why are principals and educators increasingly feeling a sense of hopelessness in their attempts to do so?
Firstly, countering violence cannot be the sole responsibility of a school. Educational leaders and educators are neither equipped nor should they be expected to know how to manage what is essentially a societal problem.
When learners come to school with knives, or when they think cyberbullying is some form of acceptable social interaction, or when educators have sexual relationships with schoolgirls, then these are not comments on the schooling system as much as they are reflections of a social malaise.
So, the writing out of lines, detention, sandpapering desks and suspending learners from school will not have the desired effect on curbing undesirable behaviour.
That said, in the absence of an unfractured society and a socially just democracy, schools have no option but to fulfil the surrogacy roles of parenting, caring and disciplining.
Second, in accepting its role of both teaching and nurturing responsible citizens, and if they hope to cultivate safe school environments, educational leaders and educators would have to do several things.
The first is to recognise the multiplicity of communities that are forced to coexist in a school. This requires of all schools to get to know their learners, to create the necessary spaces for dialogue, to listen to the stories of others, to engage with the learner from his/her own perspective, and to enact the language and behaviour that are desired from learners.
Ever-present potential of violence
This also means that schools cannot only deal with violence when they are confronted with it; they also have to accept that the potential of violence is ever-present, because we live in a society in which violence coexists with all of us.
In our own research at five high schools on the Cape Flats – which were selected for their reputation of “good practices” in countering violence and poor discipline – there were very specific practices, which were all based on a common feature.
These practices include the establishment of conversation groups for learners and educators, pastoral care programmes for learners at risk, conducting home visits to especially problematic learners, leadership and conflict mediation programmes, which draw on community and faith-based structures within the school community, the establishment of hiking groups, which included community members, so that learners could shift out of their usual physical spaces, and a willingness to listen to the stories of learners as a way of making sense of their violence.
As a more extraordinary example, one of the principals regularly takes a group of grade 12 learners – whom he considers as being at risk – home with him on weekends.
Although time-consuming and intensive, these practices are all underscored by a common feature – and that is the recognition of the humanity within all learners, no matter how abhorrent their actions.
Central to what these schools have done is to orientate themselves towards a cultivation of care and compassion.
By consciously setting out to listen, and to reach out to the humanity of the learner, learners are not dehumanised in a way that could happen if they are rebuked, humiliated or pushed away.
Although these schools recognise that they might never create entirely violence-free environments, they have also witnessed enough changes in learner conduct and attitude to believe that engaging with who the learner is, rather than what he/she does, offers schools not only the opportunity to become safer and calmer places, but also, perhaps, more importantly, affords learners themselves better opportunities to become better people.
Dr Nuraan Davids is a lecturer in the department of educational policy studies in the faculty of education at Stellenbosch University. Professor Yusef Waghid is a distinguished professor in the same department. They coauthored the book Citizenship, Education and Violence in Schools: On Disrupted Potentialities and Becoming (Springer, 2013)