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Violence in Middle Schools

In the past couple of weeks there have been two violent incidents at local middle schools.

A 14-year-old boy was stabbed walking home from the Winter Hill Community School in Somerville, and in Randolph a 13-year-old boy was arrested for allegedly stabbing another child.

On top of past incidents, experts say, these latest cases reflect a trend of increased violence among pre-teens. WBUR's Monica Brady-Myerov reports.

TEXT OF STORY:

SOUNDS OF SCHOOL HALLWAY

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Students in the Cameron Middle School in Framingham file down the hallway between classes. They aren't walking in twos; no one is holding hands or bumping into each other. It's all pretty orderly. And there's a reason for that, says Principal Judith Kelly. There is a no touching rule at the middle school.

JUDITH KELLY: Because one thing leads to another, we have found it starts friendly and things can escalate in 30 seconds, and it becomes, "He touched me too hard," he hugged me too hard." There was malice with it. So we try very hard to tell everyone to leave their hands to themselves and give each other space.

BRADY-MYEROV: The rule seems a little overboard until you look at the statistics for violence in middle schools. According the Massachusetts Department of Education, there were more than 6,000 reports of violence last year; everything from fights to robbery. That's more reports of violence than were made in high schools. It reflects a national trend says Ronald Stevens, Executive Director of the National School Safety Center.

RONALD STEVENS: Used to be that we'd think of high school as the most violent, and yet some of the current data shows middle school is one of the most challenging periods of time.

BRADY-MYEROV: That's challenging for 11, 12, and 13-year-olds, who essentially accept they must take more precautions. This 8th grader is from nearby Shrewsbury.

8TH GRADER (who prefers to remain unnamed): People are afraid that it could happen so they want to be like safe.

BRADY-MYEROV: But a lot of students complain the rules are too rigid.

ANOTHER 8TH GRADER (who prefers to remain unnamed): It kind of feels like we can't do anything it feels like we are taking away our freedom in some sense it seems we can't say anything or play around with our friends or do anything that might seem like it could affect anyone.

ANOTHER 8TH GRADER (who prefers to remain unnamed): OK, there have been a few cases where schools have been shot up but not every school. Someone opens their mouth, you have to watch your back. And no-one is like, 'I could have taken that as a threat.'

BRADY-MYEROV: Taking every comment and action seriously is the reality post-Columbine, the 1999 high school shooting in Colorado where two students killed a dozen others and one teacher. School-based attacks on this scale are rare. But one recent trend is that younger kids are carrying weapons, fighting, and making threats.

District Attorneys have taken notice. Middlesex county DA Gerry Leone is helping to bring many violence prevention programs from high schools into middle schools:

GERRY LEONE: The focus has driven down into middle school aged kids. What we're talking about now are the same challenges but those challenges are focused on younger kids.

BRADY-MYEROV: Most middle schools have responded with a crackdown on everything from name calling to bullying to verbal threats, even if they are made in jest. Educators say that allows learning to happen in a safe environment.

JUDITH KELLY: Safety is paramount to even providing a quality education students can't learn in an unsafe school.

BRADY-MYEROV: Again, Cameron Middle School Principal Judith Kelly.

KELLY: I would hate to not take something seriously and that would be the one time when the student was serous and we can't afford to have that happen.

BRADY-MYEROV: Regardless of the punishment, a student's middle school record — at least at Cameron — does not follow the child to high school. These are kids after all who make mistakes and they're moving from childhood to adulthood, says Tom Cottle, a psychologist and professor of education at Boston University.

TOM COTTLE: They are going through neurological development. They are going through a rethinking about what they believe morally. They are going through a major change in their bodies. It's a momentous time.

BRADY-MYEROV: And through out all this they are being bombarded by popular culture.

COTTLE: How could children growing up, 2008 United States of America, being exposed to the inordordinate amount of violence, in movies, in video games, in a comic book, in a TV show. How could they not now have as part of their brain perceives, thinks and feels? How could it not be affected by these cultural phenomena?

School administrators say the culture won't change so middle schools have to.

For WBUR, I'm Monica Brady-Myerov.

This program aired on March 7, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

Monica Brady-Myerov Twitter Reporter
Monica Brady-Myerov was formerly a report in WBUR's newsroom.

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