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Show respect - and love will follow

A US teacher believes she has the answer to rising school violence. SARAH LITVINOFF reports
It's been a harrowing year for American schoolchildren and their families. They have struggled to come to terms with the events at Columbine High School, when two students shot and killed 13 people, and the shooting incident, with six injured, at a school in Georgia.

The key now is to look forward - to stop this recurring. Many in the States are turning to a woman called Linda Lantieri for the solution. Lantieri is national director of the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program (RCCP), used in 375 schools in the States. Last week Columbia University published the results of a two-year evaluation of RCCP.

These offered a glimmer of hope: students who'd taken part were more likely to resolve conflicts verbally than physically. They also academically outperformed students who weren't involved in the programme.

Lantieri was in London this week, speaking about how RCCP functions, which she documented in Waging Peace in Our Schools (Beacon Press). She sounds like a pure New Yorker: laconic, fast, not overly expressive. But her Italian heritage is obvious: you can feel the passion behind her delivery.

RCCP is a comprehensive programme, working with school staff, parents, families and students. Parents and staff are taught new skills. "It can be difficult because it might be different from what they've been doing for 20 years of their career."

Communication and conflict-resolving skills are taught in group work and role playing. "It's not preaching. It's offering tools. Teachers offer them, then let students realise the value for themselves."

Lantieri's apprenticeship as a teacher in East Harlem in the Sixties provided the experience which became the programme's backbone. She loved teaching, and had been a Sunday-school attender, from a close Italo-German family. But she was shocked by what she found at work. The school was tough, the children very poor. Yet the atmosphere was the catalyst for Lantieri's thinking. Before the children could learn anything, she realised, the right climate had to be created. "If I'd had a classroom of obedient kids I might not have realised how essential it was to create a real sense of community - to show them how to interact."

Promotion took Lantieri into administration, where she systematised her approach into RCCP. She was happy working on a small scale with three schools. But in 1993, Patrick Daly, the headmaster of one school, was killed in the crossfire of a drug deal. Undeterred, Lantieri knew she had to make the programme national. Now RCCP has over 40 staff at 13 sites, and is being invited to develop the programme in other countries.

I tell Lantieri about a frighteningly antisocial teenager in my street. He has a menacing gang, and I can't see him benefiting from such a programme. Wrong, she argues. "Kids like him who often become the best mediators." Mediators are chosen by peers and trained to mediate between students. "They're a cross-section. If they were all goody-goodies, the kids on the fringe would not respect the method." They have a "peace corner" where mediations happen. Working in pairs, they get disputants to talk through the problem and guide them towards finding a solution, which is turned into a signed agreement - checked up on a couple of days later.

"Social bonding is vital for a young person like the kid in your street. Gangs are their attempts to create community and standing. When young people experience the community we create, where everyone is respected, they don't have to turn to antisocial ways."

Lantieri worries the right lessons are not being learnt from Columbine. "Guards and metal detectors have been installed. That didn't stop a Swastika being drawn on a wall. They are bringing solutions of containment and technology. One metal detector costs $100,000 - against $50,000 per year for RCCP. Things won't change till we nurture young people's emotional, social and intellectual development."

For more details about Linda Lantieri and the RCCP (tel:01923 820 900.)