Better parenting a fix for school violence, expert says

As our recent investigative series on violence in the Philadelphia School District ran, I heard from a number of people who wanted to know what could be done to fix this huge, systemic problem.  One of the experts we spoke with for the series, Dr. Charles A. Williams of Drexel University's Center for the Prevention of School-Aged Violence, wrote an essay on one way to tackle the problem.  What do you think?

Dr. Williams writes:

Dr. Charles A. Williams III, Director for the Center for the Prevention of School-Aged Violence

The recent Inquirer series “Assault on Learning” was eye-opening, evoking a strong emotional response and chronicling what many have known for years — that Philadelphia has a serious problem of school violence.

I believe this problem helps explain the district’s abysmal dropout rates, low teacher retention, and low test scores. Students cannot learn if schools are unsafe. Yet neither the paper’s editorial board nor the reporters of the series also considered the critical role of parenting.

As an educational psychologist and director of the Center for the Prevention of School-Aged Violence at Drexel University, I work to address issues of education, child safety, and violence prevention. And what I have come to realize is that the influence of parenting cannot be overstated. I am not a parent myself, although I hope to be one day. It seems to be the toughest job in the world. So I honor those parents who work hard to raise decent, kind and productive children. However, the negligent behaviors of some people have left me pondering whether we should require a license to parent.

Working as behavior specialist some years ago, I was assigned to a particularly challenging case, a 5-year-old struggling with serious aggression issues. On my weekly home visit I was appalled at what I saw. This troubled kindergartner, who had problems controlling his behavior and using profane language, was sitting in the living room, facing a large television, playing Grand Theft Auto, one of the most violent video games on the market. This is a game where you can score points by smacking around a prostitute and cursing.

Annoyed, I asked the mother if she felt it appropriate that her very young, yet very troubled son play such a game. Her response opened my eyes — “Do you think it’s wrong?” I could only stare at her. However, what became apparent is that she meant well, she just didn’t know. I would have to focus my efforts on educating and supporting parents like her.

On a good day, the best teacher cannot undo the damage poor parenting can cause. Parents socialize their children, shape their attitudes and behaviors, through instruction and modeling. However, many fail to do so. And this is where I disagree with Dr. Ackerman: If kindergartners are committing assaults, parents, not teachers, are to blame. Parents need to provide consistent guidance, which includes setting boundaries; meting out appropriate discipline for bad behavior; teaching and reinforcing positive values and morals; and creating an enriched home environment. An enriched home environment means that there should be more books than video games; more conversations about the value of education and fewer about Wendy Willams’ awful performance on Dancing with the Stars.

Now, given that too many parents fail at their most important job, I am calling for an intervention — parent mentors. Just as we use mentors to support children, we can utilize a similar approach to support parents. I realize that this is a tough sell in tough economic times, with massive budgets cuts looming on the horizon. It would be well worth the investment.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative reports that it costs over $70,000 annually to place youth in detention facilities. We should support parents on the front end — at a fraction of the cost of incarcerating their children — and that would make detention less necessary.

Parent mentor programs could be offered at schools, community centers and places of worship. Such an intervention would create stronger families, greater  academic success for children, and an end to the violence so pervasive in our schools and our communities.

Charles A. Williams, III PhD, is an educational psychologist. He serves on the faculty of the School of Education and directs the Center for the Prevention of School-Aged Violence at the Goodwin College of Drexel University ( He contributes to Fox 29 and recently received the Alison Award from the National Adoption Center for his service to children.