Friday, March 03, 2000

School violence shows need to teach peace




BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Bang! Bang! You're dead.

        Gunfire used to be make-believe in the first grade.

        Not any more.

        Tuesday's killing of Kayla Rolland changed that forever. She was gunned down by another 6-year-old in their first-grade classroom at Buell Elementary School near Flint, Mich.

        As her classmates in Room 6 lined up to go to the library, her killer pulled a .32 caliber handgun from his pants. He squeezed the trigger and killed her with one shot to the chest.

        Once again, the nation mourns a child killed at school. By now, everyone knows what will follow. The makeshift memorial at the school will be photographed showing flowers and cards, candles and teddy bears. Questions will be raised about what went wrong and who's to blame. Attention will focus on the boy's miserable home life.

        His father is in jail. His mother was evicted from the family home. The boy lived with an uncle in a flophouse where stolen weapons were exchanged for drugs, where worthless adults drifted in and out at all hours, where neighbors just thought the people inside had a lot of friends. Some friends. They were armed and high.

        After much hand wringing, fingers will be pointed. Someone might even go to jail. Then, life will go back to normal. Until the next school shooting.

Stop the violence
        Every time I think of Kayla, I see her sweet smiling face. I think about how this innocent little girl didn't have a chance to escape her killer's bullet, to become a teen-ager, to even see her seventh birthday. I wonder what can be done to prevent this from happening again.

        “And it will happen again,” Clementine Barfield assured me. “Things will get worse until we start teaching peace in every classroom in this country.”

        Clementine Barfield lives in Detroit where she is president of Save Our Sons And Daughters (SOSAD). She founded the violence-prevention group in 1986 when two of her sons were shot after a summer-school argument. The shooting left one son dead and the other with a bullet in his neck.

        She thinks establishing a curriculum for peace is just as important as teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. I agree. Knowing how to read and write and add and subtract can get you through life. In a violent world, learning how to deal peacefully with others can help save your life.

        In place at 30 Detroit schools, SOSAD's peace program goes beyond the conflict resolution taught in Greater Cincinnati. Students learn “how to communicate with people they're mad at, how to show respect.” Peacemakers, living and dead, are studied in history classes.

        Teaching peace “must start at the preschool level,” she said. Tuesday's shooting showed that children learn early on how to handle conflicts with violence. On Monday, Kayla and her killer scuffled on the school playground. On Tuesday, he shot her dead. He knew only one way to handle their disagreement. He knew how to take a gun to school. He knew how to aim it and pull the trigger. He knew how to kill.

        “He knew all the wrong things,” Clementine Barfield said. “And he learned them at home.”

        She refuses to lay all the blame on gun makers or violent programming on TV. Parents bring guns and TVs into the house. They hand down a heritage of violence to their children.

Teach peace
        SOSAD tries to stop that tradition by including parents in the peace program. Adult classes are held in homes, rec centers and churches, said Clementine Barfield. “We have to get the message out that it is wrong to hurt another person with words or deeds.”

        Students at Keidan Elementary, on Detroit's north side, sign a peace pledge to settle disagreements by talking, not slugging it out behind the gym after school.

        Kids found fighting “are reminded they signed the peace pledge,” said Rosemary Hagerman-McGhee, the school's social worker. “Then they are taught, again, how to calm down and settle an argument by talking, not by socking someone.”

        Students acting as peacemakers receive awards. They are honored on the same terms as classmates earning good grades or playing sports. They've learned a skill that can serve them forever. Living in peace can help keep sweet faces smiling. And alive.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

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