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Creating the Schools We Want for Our Children

The tragedy in Sandy Hook has become a watershed moment that's changing the way we perceive our society. How could innocent young children be killed so senselessly in a seemingly safe school and quiet community?


Ron Avi Astor

This atrocity, along with the dozens of highly publicized mass homicides—such as Columbine—seen in the past decades worldwide have raised questions about the schools our children attend. Are they safe from inside and outside threats? What can be done to make schools safer?

Ironically, national data going back to 1994 suggest that our nation's schools and communities are experiencing far less serious violence and fewer threats than 20 years ago. However, many Americans feel things are getting worse for schools. Most of us respond on a personal level to the inhumanity intrinsic in such mass homicide atrocities. And we are seeing more of these cases and images in the news media.

Despite dramatically lower rates of overall victimization, I believe Sandy Hook, and the intense media coverage surrounding shootings and bullying, have changed national norms on what is considered acceptable or even safe. We are no longer willing to tolerate even one senseless, horrific event in a school. Nor should we. The seemingly contradictory conclusions that overall crime and victimization in schools are going down and that our society is more concerned about school safety are actually both true and can co-exist.

Schools are safer than they have been in the past, yet as a society, we want them even safer. So what can be done to make our schools and society even safer?

Include social, emotional, and school climate issues in the core mission of schools. Sandy Hook raises important questions about the type of society we want to live in. What do we want our schools to teach our children? What kinds of citizens do we want our schools to help shape? We know society has been obsessed with creating academic A+ students. But do we also want schools to help foster A+ human beings? If so, we need to adopt a broader philosophical approach that sees the school's mission as educating the whole child.

From this viewpoint, our schools—from kindergarten through grade 12—should be giving just as much energy and time to creating positive and supportive school climates and social-emotional learning as they are to implementing the Common Core State Standards. Most scholars and leading experts in the fields of school safety and bullying agree on the centrality of social and emotional learning in schools. (See these sites for examples of research-informed suggestions: National School Climate CenterCollaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning; American Educational Research Association; and the Position Statement of the Interdisciplinary Group on Preventing School and Community Violence in Response to Sandy Hook Shooting.)

Actively involve students, teachers, and parents to solve safety problems. A climate of safety starts with opening our eyes and ears in a democratic and responsive way to what students in schools have to say. For example, in many states students are telling us in anonymous surveys (such as the California Healthy Kids Survey) that they are aware of the presence of weapons on school campuses and have sometimes even been threatened with weapons or victimized in other ways. Too few schools do anything with the information that students provide on these surveys.

If school climate matters, how should we respond to the voices of students? Identifying the specific forms of victimization and determining which groups of students are more likely to be victimized on any given campus can help educators and communities create better prevention strategies.

Tailored programs in response to students' needs are likely to be more effective than blanket anti-bullying campaigns or zero-tolerance policies unconnected to the specific behaviors and groups affected in a school. There are many examples of schools that use a data-driven model involving surveys of students, staff, and parents to achieve these goals at the school and district levels (e.g., http://buildingcapacity.usc.edu/ ).

If we create a caring environment and respond to their collective concerns, perhaps students would be more willing to "save a friend's life" by letting adults know about a weapon on school grounds.

Dramatically increase mental-health supports in schools. We can improve school safety by ensuring that educators and mental-health professionals work together to recognize students who are experiencing emotional disturbances or severe conflicts, either in or out of school. We should be ramping up mental-health services in schools—both by increasing the number of school social workers, school psychologists, counselors, nurses, and other professionals on staff, as well as by partnering with community agencies. University schools of education need to train teachers, principals, and support staff not only to assess potential threats, but also to create a positive classroom and school environment and facilitate a school community that supports all students, even those with mental-health needs.

These are the types of supportive schools that I want my children educated in. These schools will help our nation's children thrive.

Ron Avi Astor is the Thor professor in the School of Social Work and Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. He is a co-author of School Violence in Context and of four free new books aimed at creating supports and safe welcoming environments for students from military families in public schools. He was the co-chair of the AERA Bullying Task Force. He is a leader of Building Capacity in Military-Connected Schools and Welcoming Transitions for Military Students, a partnership involving USC and a consortium of Southern California school districts.

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