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Meaningful Solutions for School Safety in the Newtown Aftermath

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By Gail Connelly, Executive Director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP)

The Monday after the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Connecticut, was a difficult day for many parents who sent their children back to school — and for the educators who received them. In NAESP's weekly conference call with school leaders this week, we heard from one principal — 25 miles from Sandy Hook — that more than 80 students were absent from school on Monday.

So it's not surprising that the first response of principals has been to put their own grief aside to support anxious parents of anxious children, to explain the unexplainable, and put on a resolute face to help them understand they are safe in school.

Determined more than ever to protect every child in their schools, principals across the country are also sharing and assessing their school safety plans with teachers and families, and encouraging a national discourse on the issues that Sandy Hook raises about student mental health and well-being.

In many schools, school safety plans and arrangements, such as placing an armed guard at the door, come from district policies. But without guidance from some districts, many principals are left to their own designs to ensure secure entrance and exit points to their schools. That's just what Dawn Hochsprung did when she took over as principal of Sandy Hook in 2010, putting many new school security measures in place herself. Various experts in community and school safety credit the principal's actions — and those of the trained guidance counselor and teachers — with limiting the violence in the school and likely saving many more lives.

However, beyond school safety, the Sandy Hook tragedy has raised much larger issues about student mental health issues, and the glaring need for more coordinated community and school services available to principals who need them to help their students and families. One principal that we have talked to in the aftermath of the shooting lamented that she has 18 students on a waiting list for mental health and related services, three of whom staff believe could require some sort of hospitalization. This principal was anguished over the concern that any one of the children could grow up to be the next Adam Lanza, but she simply is not able to get the medical and psychiatric support she needs for these children in a preschool to grade one school building. And we have heard over and over how many principals struggle daily with these same issues.

The Interdisciplinary Group on Preventing School and Community Violence, in a statement that updates the School Shootings Position Statement disseminated after similar tragic school-related shootings in 2006, offers a thoughtful research-based approach to safer schools, along with revised policies on youth exposure to violent media and increased efforts to limit inappropriate access to guns and, especially, assault-type weapons.

Two key elements of the group's recommended approach for schools include connectedness — a culture where students feel they belong at their schools and that others care for them — and support — especially for depression, anxiety, bullying, incivility and various forms of conflict that need to be taken seriously.

Endorsed by NAESP and more than 100 professional organizations representing more than 4 million professionals, the statement is the work of nine researchers and practitioners from multiple fields of study who have worked in the area of school safety since the 1980s. The driving force behind the statement is to communicate scientifically informed principles and recommendations for practitioners, policymakers and the public at large.

The statement calls for schools to reach out to build positive connections to marginalized students, showing concern and fostering avenues of meaningful involvement. And, the statement says that schools must also have the resources to maintain evidence-based programs designed to address bullying and other forms of student conflict. Research-based violence prevention and related comprehensive support programs should be offered, following a three-tier approach, operating at universal (school-wide), targeted (for students who are at risk), and intensive (for students who are at the highest levels of risk and need) levels.

Along with the researchers behind that effort, the 20,000 members of NAESP and many others across the nation demand a renewed nationwide effort to address the issues surrounding the Sandy Hook tragedy — not putting a gun in the hand of every teacher and principal. More meaningful solutions must be sought through comprehensive planning and coordination to prevent violence, even in the earliest years. These plans should include access to mental health services for children, youth, and adults who are showing signs of psychological distress, including depression, anxiety, withdrawal, anger, and aggression, as well as assistance for the families that support them.

In the aftermath of the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary School, we all feel a desperate need to honor the memories of the victims and take steps to prevent such an event from happening again. In that spirit, many well-meaning policymakers are proposing to allow teachers and principals to carry firearms in school. As the professional organization for our nation's principals, we encourage more thoughtful solutions as we work together to responsibly ensure that our nation's schools remain a safe haven for all students.

A principal's first responsibility is to foster a safe, orderly, warm, and inviting environment. To be effective, schools must be able to provide intervention and supports for students and families and draw upon the collective resources of the entire learning community, which includes community-based social and mental health services or related non-profit organizations, local law enforcement, and other community partners who have a stake in our children's success in school and society.

It's important to remember that children — and educators — are safer in schools than in almost any other place, including, for many, their own homes. Schools, community-based health and safety institutions and policymakers all must work together to ensure that schools remain community sanctuaries of non-violence, and adopt common-sense solutions through aid, intervention and on-going support for the well-being of every student.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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