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No more Columbines, no more Kosovos


After a summertime free of the horror of school violence, the country is now approaching another academic year with one state after another embroiled in gun control debates and pressured by lobbying from every side.

What’s to be done about the situation? How do we preserve all our “freedoms” and the values that have made America the greatest democratic experiment of all time and still protect our children, our society?

We’ve all been tsk-tsking a lot about assault in schools lately. But while we all go on fretting, a small group in Miami goes on trying to do something about it. All they, and other people like them -- Pax Christi, the Fellowship of Reconciliation -- need is our attention.

Sandwiched between the massacre at Columbine High School and the massacres in Kosovo, we have had a White House Summit on teenage violence, a traditionally defiant National Rifle Association and a jury decision against a television talk show that ambushes people with emotional secrets and may trigger the killer instinct in them. We are blaming the media, the gun makers, Nintendo games, parents, working mothers -- especially working mothers -- and the Internet for the fact that the streets of our country run red with the blood of our own children. We are blaming everyone and everything in sight.

At the same time, we seem to be missing the fact that, as a culture, we ourselves, the good guys, bomb into submission what we cannot otherwise control, are suffering case after case of police brutality and rank with the most socially backward countries in the world in our practice of capital punishment. And, apparently, our practice of capital punishment is haphazard. Consider, for example, the 12 men recently released from prisons in Illinois after years on death row who, DNA has shown, could not possibly have committed the crimes for which we were about to put them to death.

We fail to see that we have built violence into the culture; we support it, subsidize it, applaud it. And we wonder how it is that our children have learned it so well. We call it good when we do it and bad when they do it.

And so we are changing little. We still have the guns, we still have the television shows and we still have the killings. Tsk, tsk.

While I was tsk-tsking I found a place in Miami that has been working on the problem for years. It’s called “The Peace Education Foundation: A Research-based Violence Prevention Curricula and Training Program.” The foundation isn’t nearly as well-known as the NRA but it should be.

And its staff would like it to be. For all our sakes. They, and other groups like them, are standing there in place, prepared to do more than fret and patiently waiting for families, parishes and the American school system to find them.

They have something to offer that the conferences, the social outcries and the national blaming do not. They’re doing something and making it possible for us to do something. They aren’t criticizing; they’re changing things.

They’ve designed materials for kindergarten to grade 12 to teach a child how to fight fair, how to avoid violence, how to use “I care ... ” language. The materials include workbooks, communication rules, posters and activity guides. The foundation produces well-written, interesting materials on nonviolent conflict-resolution skills from kindergarten through high school, including a volume on “Fighting Fair in Families.” They train teachers how to use the materials. And they hold recognition dinners for children who embody the principles in outstanding ways, the way we used to have “I speak for democracy contests” and Altar Boy Essay Awards in a different day with different needs -- the kind of good programs we say we wish we had now.

The truth is that I didn’t know about this particular group either. (Good things are not considered newsworthy these days, you know.) I wonder if I would ever have discovered the group, in fact, if I hadn’t been picked up at the Miami airport by the 80-year-old nun who started this peace foundation. She now shares its administration with a young graduate of Georgetown University who studied international politics.

Together they make an odd but beautiful pair: She is great-grandmotherly, bustling, clear-eyed, competent and experienced in the ways nuns who have spent their entire lives in schoolrooms so commonly are. She looks 60, sounds 50 and moves like a 40-year-old. He is young, committed, full of energy, knowledgeable and well trained. They link one generation, one social vision, one world to another. They and the large staff of professionals they’ve gathered around them are spending their lives trying to give us another chance.

Let’s put it this way: What we’ve done as a people so far clearly hasn’t worked. Isn’t it time we try something else? If we want to change a situation bred by power, by competition, by social wrath, we need first to change our own attitudes toward it and the ways we go about dealing with all of it, both the good guys and the bad guys.

But don’t believe me: Send for their catalog yourself. The address is Peace Education Foundation, 1900 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, FL 33132-1025 or phone: 1-800-749-8838.

This column is not a paid advertisement. It’s a plea. No more Columbines. No more Kosovos.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister writes from Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 1999