The Columbine massacre of 1999 turned the world’s attention to violence in U.S. schools. While administrators rushed to install medical detectors and backpack checks, many forms of aggression continued undeterred. In a 2007 nationwide survey of students in grades 9-12, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 32 percent of students had been threatened or bullied, and 12.4 percent had been in a physical fight on school property.
None of that is news to Mariah Keene, 15, who goes to Warren Central High School. She said she learned early on that she had to stick up for herself at school. “I was bullied and I told the teacher about it, it just kept happening and it’s like nobody’s doing anything about it.
“Am I supposed to solve the problem myself?”
Many other Indianapolis students are asking that same question. A recent interview with area students found that acts of violence – insults, threats, punches and more – are common in their schools.
“It’s a very, very major problem,” said Tyrese Magee, 17, also of Warren Central. “Everybody wants to be a showoff. … Instead of saying, ‘Hey, you’re not worth my time, you’re not worth me going to the office, me getting suspended,’ it’s ‘Well, let’s go ahead and make a scene in front of everybody.’”
Project SAVE is a national nonprofit organization that is trying to show students another way. “The main purpose of Students Against Violence Everywhere would be to build safer schools and safer communities,” says Byron Johnson, violence prevention coordinator for the Marion County Health Department and sponsor of two local SAVE chapters.
SAVE was founded in Charlotte, N.C., in 1989 by of friends of Alex Orange, a high school student who was shot and killed while trying to break up a fight at a party. Since then, it has grown to more than 200,000 members in 1,800 chapters across the United States.
Mariah and Tyrese are members of an Indianapolis chapter that meets at least once a month. Most of the members say they joined the group because they have become weary of the violence they see in their schools and communities and want to try to make a difference.
“We usually try to talk about different activities we could do to spread the word about nonviolence, about keeping peace in the streets,” said Ellie Honious, 15, Warren Central.
Most members say they have been bullied at some time in their lives, and all have seen various forms of violence, ranging from cussing and threats to hair-pulling and fistfights.
“In my first year of high school, I saw so much violence,” said Mariah. “I saw it almost three, four times a week, with like 100 people gathered in a circle in the hallway.”
It doesn’t take much to start a fight, the students say. “Violence starts in schools by saying cuss words or something, or hitting somebody on accident or getting over-stressed and taking out the anger on somebody else,” said SAVE member Nate Maxey, 10, Crooked Creek Elementary.
Some blamed gangs or cliques for many of the conflicts, other blamed race or ethnic tensions. But whatever the initial trigger, the outcome is always a fight.
“We cannot settle something with two people,” Tyrese explained. “I believe it’s ‘Hey, you messed with my brother or my compadre, I think we got to fight.’”
Almost all students prefer to settle matters themselves rather than seek assistance from adults. Will Clinkscales, 15, attends North Central High School and says most fights there are “over stupid stuff” —“someone spreading a rumor about someone, or someone just talking trash, or over money.”
He’s never seen students go to adults for help, though if adults see a fight they will break it up. “Kids try to take matters into their own hands,” he said.
Johnson says violence today is different from when he was in high school. For example, girls didn’t used to be involved in violent situations, he said. Also, today there are more weapons, more gangs and more people getting involved.
In fact, the 2007 CDC report found that 6.5 percent of the students surveyed carried a weapon to school in the previous 30 days.
“I think one of the main causes of school violence would be situations that are allowed to escalate over time, and students really make poor choices,” said Johnson.
To counter such behavior, SAVE sponsors projects and activities to help raise awareness. “We try to decrease the violence that is in our communities and schools by using three potential elements, which are crime prevention, conflict management and service projects,” explained Tyrese.
Principal among these activities is America's Safe Schools Week, which begins Oct. 18. During the week, which is held every year, SAVE members try to raise awareness of the problem and investigate ways to make schools safer.
The week culminates in the SAVE National Rock-A-Thon on Oct. 22, in which members from across the country take turns rocking in a safe school year and raising money for the organization. Johnson’s chapters will be doing their rocking at the Indianapolis City Market from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. that day.
In addition to trying to change the way youth react to conflict, SAVE has taken steps to make them more comfortable turning to adults for help. “They have to feel it’s safe, meaning if they go to a staff member, the staff member won’t go to other people and say, you know, ‘Jimmy told me this or Lisa told me this.’ They have to know that their name will be protected.
"Any time students do come to us, we want to do everything we can to protect their identity and try to make it where they can report anonymously,” Johnson added.
But SAVE members know they need to stop violence in the community before it will stop in schools. Too many students come to school having to endure criticism and conflict from relatives and peers, says Austin Marqua, 12, of Fountain Square Academy. “When something isn’t right at home, you’re bringing it to school.”
SAVE is free for all members. To find a chapter near you or for further information, contact Byron Johnson at 221-3538 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
ASSISTANT EDITORS: Daquisha Jones, 17; Kathryn Kenny, 18; Jake Thornburgh, 17.