Witnesses provided compelling examples of approaches to preventing intergroup conflicts in Philadelphia's schools.
The Commission heard several examples of approaches that are currently being used to prevent conflict. Intergroup conflicts are a multifaceted problem, and the range of tools and supports that can be adopted is wide. All, however, have the same desired outcome: to teach students to embrace diversity, eschew intolerance, and rely on alternatives to violence for resolving disputes.
A rich variety of activities and services for youth. We heard about a number of schools that have been able to provide an expanded menu of relevant services to students, often by engaging local community-based organizations. These services include counseling and psychological resources, drug prevention and anti-bullying education, and out-of-school-time programming for students.
More importantly, we heard about the potential impact these kinds of programs could have on students. One young student said, "I just would like to give advice to principals and teachers that's here today... [A]ny kid can fool you how they look outside, but inside you don't really know how they're feeling. It could be hurt... It could be some mental problems that people - it reflects on them. If you pull that kid up, and put them in positive energy that he's all around all day, they're going to pull that in. And you're not going to see the negative stuff around them... That's the last thing you're going to see from another person, is the violence. So if you get to that kid before they create that violence, you're going to get the best out of him."
Orientation programs. Witnesses discussed efforts to introduce incoming ninth graders to their new school through orientation programs. These begin to build bonds among the students to help them feel more comfortable in a new, often intimidating, environment. One principal described a program in which students who are English Language Learners are paired with two other students - one whose first language is English, and another who speaks the student's native language. The principal touted the benefit students derive from immediately being connected to other students within the school.
Social skills. One witness, a professor of education, stated that teaching young people social skills can have a big impact on many areas of their lives: "My own research shows that if we teach social skills in school, it can deal with issues of aggression, violence and bullying, and more importantly, it also aids in school achievement...It would only require a few minutes a day, a few times per week to teach our children respect, pride, empathy, and togetherness. This would also lead to better social adjustment, pro-social behavior, healthier peer relations, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality."
Behavioral-change programs. Witnesses also brought up behavior-change programs, including Positive Behavior Supports (PBS), that promote healthy relationships among students and teachers alike. As one advocate described it, "Instead of expecting that students know what we mean when we say, 'respect each other' or even 'be on time,' PBS practice means that the good behaviors are taught, not assumed, and then repeatedly, repeatedly reinforced. After establishing a few school-wide expectations, the entire school takes on teaching them. What does it mean to be respectful in my classroom? What does it mean in the hallway, the lunchroom, the auditorium?"
Training and professional development to help educators understand and address bias. Several individuals spoke about the need for increasing the number of professionals in the schools specifically trained to help students with stressors in their lives. School principals also spoke of the benefits of having adults from outside agencies working to meet the psychosocial needs of students.
Schools have also recognized the questions confronting teachers, staff, and administrators when they encounter bias-based behaviors: How can they be more alert to those behaviors in the school? What should a teacher do if he or she observes an incident of bullying? What assistance can school personnel call upon to deal with intergroup conflicts?
The Commission heard from many witnesses who reported significant benefits for teachers and staff at schools that have focused specifically on intergroup conflicts in professional development sessions. Some of the most successful training and professional development in this regard have been delivered by or in conjunction with community-based organizations with expertise and knowledge of community concerns and cultures.