In the wake of the recent tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, it has been encouraging to learn that the students whose advocacy inspired and began a movement are involved in high school theater.

There’s another role, too, that arts education can play in relation to school violence: prevention. Since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, Maine high schools have had access to a performing arts program that lowers social barriers and builds trust within the classroom. Building Community Through the Arts, organized by the Maine Alliance for Arts Education (MAAE), sends professional theater and dance educators into high school academic classrooms (usually English) to engage all the students in the class in creating an original drama or dance piece together (no script writing ... no formal steps ... creating through group improvisation, critique, and revision). The piece is based either on social issues the students themselves identify, or on related issues in their curriculum. Each residency is given eight hours of class time during school hours.

The group experience is daunting at first for many students, and many are initially reluctant, but by the end the students feel differently about each other and about theater and dance itself. We see this again and again: The students not only are proud of what they have accomplished together, but comment that they now all feel comfortable with one another, respect each other: “We feel like a family now.” A pre- and post-test administered to each class, designed by the University of Maine, gives us the data that confirms their comments.

Earlier this year, our program got the attention of those at the Maine Department of Education who are involved with school climate and student emotional health. They suggested that we aggregate our pre- and post-results data, so that the DOE can propose Building Community Through the Arts to Maine schools as an “evidence-based” program. We’re working on that right now.

This is not intended to downplay the importance of the guns issue. But there is still room—despite all the discussion and policy-making about bullying—to improve the way schools deal with social issues among students. That’s what this program is about—and we believe it is effective for two reasons. First, it involves ALL the students directly—not just the students who want to see social change, but the whole social spectrum. And second, it doesn’t preach; it puts students together in the difficult, stressful situation of creating and putting together a show (the show must go on!), and they begin to relate to each other in a different way.

Our experience with BCTA also touches on how the arts are treated at the high school level. For all intents and purposes, at the high school level the arts are treated as an elective—as if students don’t need the arts unless they are gifted or already interested. This is especially the case with theater and creative movement. But these physically interactive and collaborative art forms, where students can safely express themselves through the screen of fictional theater or non-verbal movement, have a social purpose for this age group. That purpose is fully served only when ALL students are involved—those who need to be more socially inclusive as well as those who need to feel included.

Learn more about Building Community Through the Arts here.