Eye-Opening Maine Survey Samples Student Attitudes
By Sandor M. Polster, Special to Stateline
ORONO, Maine - Of the many questions from the Columbine High School killings a week ago today, a central one is: Why did no one hear what the teenage gunmen were saying in the weeks and months before the tragedy? If they had lived in Maine, the two young men might have been heard.
That's because the University of Maine's National Center for Student Aspirations regularly surveys tens of thousands of students in the state in grades six through twelve in an effort to find solutions to problem situations such as those that existed in Littleton, Colorado.
"We're extremely good at asking kids what they know about math and science and social studies. What this survey does is it asks kids what they think. What they think about themselves, what they think about their schools, what they think about their environment," says Dr. Russ Quaglia, director of the center, which is part of the College of Education and Human Development on the Orono, Maine campus.
The most recent survey, which polled more than 20,000 students, was conducted in February and the findings were released days after the Littleton shootings. It is the only study of its kind in the country.
The survey found that 45 percent of the respondents felt that students don't show respect for one another; 44 percent said students don't show respect for teachers. And students can be cruel: 34 percent said schoolmates say things intentionally to hurt or insult others, while 41 percent said they had been verbally or physically threatened at school.
"One of the lessons the survey talks about," Quaglia says, "is a growing incivility that exists out there between kids. Not just kids against somebody else, but kids against other kids the lack of respect that we see that's out there."
"Kids are not shooting kids because of poor test scores or lack of a rigorous curriculum," he says. "School violence is caused, in part, by the fact that we are not paying enough attention to the social development of students."
Quaglia currently is working with the National College Board on a survey of students nationwide. The results, which are due by the end of June, are not expected to differ much from the Maine students attitudes, he said.
In the aftermath of the Columbine High School assault, there have been calls for some form of nationwide action. Quaglia says the Maine survey shows the solution may be closer to home.
"We don't need a national summit," he says. "What's that going to do? I want a kitchen table summit. I want every family to have their own summit. My guess is that family values need to get turned on their heads again."
The Maine survey showed there is a positive base on which to build. Eighty-eight percent of the students said anyone can succeed if they work hard enough, while 75 percent were optimistic about the future and 83 percent accepted responsibility for their actions.
Nevertheless, it is also clear that student alienation is not an isolated phenomenon, Quaglia says.
"You've got kids who feel disconnected, that's obvious. They don't feel they're valued, they don't feel anyone listens to them, they feel like they're out of the loop ... I don't think it's a new phenomenon that's going to go away very quickly."
Quaglia says one of the most disturbing findings of the survey is that 63 percent of the students "do zero community service."
That has profound implications, the Maine educator says.
"We don't see the big picture anymore and I think having kids not do any kind of community service, all they look for is themselves. The whole notion of belonging seems to be pretty much nonexistent in schools," he says.