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To Make Schools Safe


One of the great paradoxes of human beings is that we feel two pressing needs at the same time: for the freedom that comes from defining ourselves as individuals, and for the security that comes from feeling connected to one another, writes Sam Chaltain in this Education Week Commentary.

Chaltain writes that this tension has important implications for schools, which often struggle to balance the need for individual freedom with the desire for a safe and orderly environment. But, he suggests, school leaders do not need to make this choice. Schools must be places that nurture our need for individual freedom as a means of forging stronger collective bonds, and environments that create unity in the interest of our diversity, instead of at the expense of it. Creating this type of inclusive school environment will stem students' feelings of isolation and invisibility that lead to school violence, maintains Chaltain.

What do you think? Will improving the school environment on an interpersonal level help to reduce violence?


Writer Chaltain does not experience the hourly demand of parents who demand instant access to their children, and at the same time take every opportunity to fault school administrators when a determined individual breaches the school house doors and compromises the safety of students and staff. Connectedness starts at home! If the is no connection for 3/4 of a student's existence, school cannot supercede for exactly the reasons Chaltain sites. Parents hold an ultimate trump that is difficult if not impossible to deal with effectively while remaining focusing resources on reason schools exist: effectively educating our nations' children for success in world that grows more perilous each day.

Schools operate according to policies set by school boards and nearly every school board is elected by parents! When schools have security plans in place that rankle parents because their entrance into schools, and access to their children, require procedural steps required by policy and regulation, they have what they voted for because of their vote...or non-vote!

As is most always the case, schools are to respond to omni-directional mandates, criticisms, and multiple pundits with little or no pedigogical foundation. While some choose a life's work of 'wheel-reinventing' because they can, others choose a work of 'teaching how to utilize' a perfectly good wheel because we must.

Regrettably, this Commentary reinforces the myth that "schools are unsafe." Unfortunately, the highly publicized cases obscure the fact that children are many times safer inside school than outside, and that the level of school violence has been declining for at least the last ten years. It's hard to dispell people's misconceptions though when reputable publications like EW insist on giving them credence.

Teacher unions have negotiated teacher independence from disciplining students. School districts approved because they can hire more administrators to do the job. Result, teachers are no longer respected by students.
Also big schools cannot be properly monitored. With 3,500 students in JR/SR high’s gangs form and carry on the bully learned in the 2,500-seat elementary school. The kids that are picked on need an equalizer that goes bang when the trigger is pulled.
Correct the source as well as the result.

Schools have always had some dangers. Large schools with students from many different neighborhoods, tend to have more disassociation among students that leads to a natural gang effect. Students associate with people they are cpmfortable with, often leading to rivalries and isolation. There appears to be a rise in this sort of behavior during transition periods, from elementary to middle to high school. There is a natural top of the heap feeling that transits to a bottom of the heap feeling at the next level.
It is difficult to convince a concerned parent that school violence is indeed on the decline when the instantaneous news brings such violence into the living or other room almost as soon as it happens, in many cases, in the middle of a crisis. Schools get caught in the middle between trying to address concerns and not offend the public with locked doors and security checks.
Nurturing an inclusive environment helps keep a classroom in order. Such action sounds like a positive step. There will almost always be a student or students that feel left out, but part of teaching is to help students feel that they are included.

Schools are a part of the highly competitive world that exists for children and youth. We spend a great deal of time and money to sort and rank students in all kinds of ways. Is it any wonder that some students feel invisible and disconnected? We have lost sight of creating environments in which students can achieve and develop without the constant worry about comparisons to others. And as a society we need to work together to teach children and youth to appreciate and encourage each other and spend less time labeling.

At last, someone is opening the discussion on the CAUSES for the escalating violence! Connectedness and a sense of safety for one's self are pretty basic needs, as Maslow discovered almost a century ago- yet we are still arguing about what makes people feel safe, accepted, and a part of the group. It begins at home with children contributing to a family unit in which each individual has a purpose and an identity. (So many children are born into families who have no idea why they are having children, other than because it is "expected"- they have no sense of purposefulness about the child's role in the family unit. Indeed, parents often do not have a sense of their own roles within the family unit! Blended, single, and same-gender families contribute even more confusion about individuals' roles and purpose- "Who's kid is this, anyway!- Who's the "real" parent?")

At school, the belonging has to be incorporated into the earliest experience, and the early childhood folks appear to do a pretty good job, from what I have been able to observe. Where we educators seem to lose the influence is right about at the place where the belonging to the group becomes the imperative; at the same time we are separating kids as "Middle Schoolers", detaching thme from their rightful place as role models for the younger ones, and requiring them to sink or swim in a pool of hyphenated individuals- Hispanic-Americans, African-Americans, Indian-Americans, and every other culturally diverse group we can think of. THEN, we identify kids as "special needs", "gifted", Etc., further creating degrees of separation. Is it any wonder that a young person is bewildered, feels alienated, and cannot make sense of the intimidating world of the adult?

I recall talking with a social worker who had been involved with crisis recovery after a school shooting. He pointed out that we have decades of research verifying that no abuse is as powerful as neglect. Having no voice - being invisible - is the worst kind of abuse.
Teaching teenagers to be visible and heard in ways that are productive, not just loud or angry, is a challenge indeed. And yet I can think of no more worthy challenge for public schools. Andy Hargreaves has said, "Sympathy is the emotional foundation of democracy." Too often we are all so wrapped up with the urgent (test scores, AYP, CYA)we forget the important - building relationships in meaningful ways, and teaching our students (and their parents!) how to talk about differences in respectful ways.
At our school we have found our work to provide students with opportunities to take public action, to be heard and seen in ways that help shape their communities, has spread to families. We include parents (and grandparents, significant others, families, etc.) in policies and decisions that are made at the school, helping all our community members learn the skills associated with not just debate, but dialogue and deliberation as well.

Bravo to the author of this piece! I couldn't agree more with the notion that safety in schools is strongly related to student visibility. We can lock doors, have metal detectors, and emergency plans, and all of these will be needed if we can't help students understand the principles of citizenship. We certainly need those emergency plans in today's schools, but never at the exclusion of creating a caring climate and strong interpersonal relationships It begins by us validating who students are and honoring their individual contributions. The importance of helping students learn how to be relevant, how to use their voices, and how to mitigate things that trouble them, should be part of our mission.

Interpersonal skills are not skills that students are born with they are learned personal skills of communication.
Violence,in its-self, is learned and can be unlearned. However, it is crucial to start anti-violence intervention skills at the age of 5 years old. Intervention needs to be age appropriate, systematic and long term (will not see positive change for at least two years), a willingness to accept diversity and work with it,rely on strategies thaat focuses, identifies and treats individual situation that meets the individual student, then as the program is being implemented, a need to be flexible, not overly rigid, look at the circumstances that surrounds each incident, the socio-economic cultural backgraound, and realize that if the student lives with violence and becomes a victim (remebering violence takes many forms)you must incorporate a sense of hope for the hopeless.
Focus on the positive attributes of these small minorities that prey on others who also become victims themselves, teachers need to be prepared to address complex issues that surround the unacceptable behavior in the first place. There is always a pattern.
Those of us who have had the priviledge not to walk in their shoes should not asume that these violent issues can be taken by storm and implemented over night. Those of us who have walked in their shoes in one way or another should go back and remember how it felt to be a victim of unacceptable behavior. If you do not get praise, love, security, food, clothing, and shelter, how can we, as educators expect these students reach self-actualization (Maslow's Theory)? I am positive that you can turn at least one student's life around. Are you up to the challenge? Can you accept that some parents way of living is done for different reasons? If so, make a plan and work with it. Just remember each student is an individual. You need to know what makes them tick. Stop, Caution, Green. Think about it.

Messenger Chaltain brings an analysis to the problem and symptoms of student disengagement (as manifested not only in school violence but also dropout rates, community violence, teen pregnancy...) that is sorely needed if we are to effectively solve this crisis. Students absolutely need constructive ways to find voice and visibility if they are to find meaning and purpose in their education, their school, and the wider community. And schools need to create opportunities and a supportive and inclusive climate to promote voice and visibility.

If school leaders think that "compliance driven solutions" like metal detectors, surveillance cameras, more school police, and zero tolerance discipline policies represent the core of the solution to school violence, they are fooling themselves. Students, particularly those from disempowered communities, need opportunities to understand and grapple with the issues of the day. These issues of race, class, power, and justice are in the faces of students in impoverished neighborhoods on a daily basis. Students are hungry to understand these issues and address them if they are to find meaning and even liberation from their educational experiences, and if they are to believe that they have real currency in the wider community.

Relevant teaching and learning with a real problem-solving dimension, deliberations of public issues, artistic and journalistic venues for expressing oneself, participation in school and district decision-making, and adults who provide guidance and mentorship... are some of the asset-based elements that must augment and at times supercede the compliance-driven approaches.
Otherwise, this crisis will grow to even more epic proportions.

This is a e-mail I recently received however since it is in truth, I thought I'd forward it and the resolve is so simple yet no one seems to want to pursue it. It's truly a sad state of affairs and I've discovered over the years that God will not interfere where you don't want him but if you seek him he will be there for you...
Subject: wake up call - good to last word

> >
> >Dear God:
> >
> >Why didn't you save the school children at ?. .
> >
> >Moses Lake, Washington 2/2/96
> >Bethel, Alaska 2/19/97
> >Pearl, Mississippi 10/1/97
> >West Paducah, Kentucky 12/1/97
> >Stamp, Arkansas 12/15/97
> >Jonesboro, Arkansas 3/24/98
> >Edinboro, Pennsylvania 4/24/98
> >Fayetteville, Tennessee 5/19/98
> >Springfield, Oregon 5/21/98
> >Richmond, Virginia 6/15/98
> >Littleton, Colorado 4/20/99
> >Taber, Alberta, Canada 5/28/99
> >Conyers, Georgia 5/20/99
> >Deming, New Mexico 11/19/99
> >Fort Gibson, Oklahoma 12/6/99
> >Santee, California 3/ 5/01 and
> >El Cajon, California 3/22/01?
> >
> >Sincerely,
> >Concerned Student
> >---------------------------------------------
> >
> >Reply:
> >
> >Dear Concerned Student:
> >I am not allowed in schools.
> >Sincerely,
> >God
> >---------------------------------------------
> >
> >How did this get started?...
> >
> >-----------------
> >
> >Let's see,
> >I think it started when Madeline Murray O'Hare complained she didn't
> >want any prayer in our schools.
> >And we said, OK.
> >------------------
> >Then, someone said you better not
> >read the Bible in school,
> >the Bible that says
> >"thou shalt not kill,
> >thou shalt not steal,
> >and love your neighbors as yourself,"
> >And we said, OK...
> >
> >-----------------
> >
> >Dr. Benjamin Spock said
> >we shouldn't spank our children
> >when they misbehaved
> >because their little personalities
> >would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem.
> >And we said,
> >an expert should know what he's talking about so we won't spank them
> >anymore..
> >
> >------------------
> >
> >Then someone said
> >teachers and principals better not
> >discipline our children when they misbehave.
> >And the school administrators said
> >no faculty member in this school
> >better touch a student when they misbehave because we don't want any
> >bad publicity, and we surely don't want to be sued.
> >And we accepted their reasoning...
> >
> >------------------
> >
> >Then some of our top elected officials said it doesn't matter what we
> >do in private as long as we do our jobs. And
we said,
> >it doesn't matter what anybody, including the President, does in
> >private as long as we have jobs and the economy is good....
> >
> >------------------
> >
> >And someone else took that appreciation a step further and published
> >pictures of nude children and then stepped further still by making
> >them available on the Internet.
> >And we said, everyone's entitled to free speech....
> >
> >------------------
> >
> >And someone else took that appreciation a step further and published
> >pictures of nude children and then stepped further still by making
> >them available on the Internet.
> >And we said, everyone's entitled to free speech....
> >
> >------------------
> >
> >And the entertainment industry said,
> >let's make TV shows and movies that promote profanity, violence and
> >illicit sex...
> >And let's record music that encourages rape, drugs, murder, suicide,
> >and satanic themes...
> >And we said,
> >it's just entertainment
> >and it has no adverse effect
> >and nobody takes it seriously anyway, so go right ahead.
> >
> >------------------
> >
> >Now we're asking ourselves
> >why our children have no conscience,
> >why they don't know right from wrong, and why it doesn't bother them
> >to kill strangers, classmates or even themselves.
> >
> >------------------
> >
> >Undoubtedly,
> >if we thought about it long and hard enough,
> >we could figure it out.
> >I'm sure it has a great deal to do with...
> >
> >------------------
> >
> >Pass it on
> >if you think it has merit.

The author is right on with his assessment of how student visibility and voice are essential for safer schools.

The key is to focus on the transition form 8th grade to high school, where many of the greatest challenges, potential for gang involvement, drug use, apathy and drop out occur. Most are 13-14 years old, desparately in need of belonging from their peers and individuality away from their parents and families. Programs that have been successful in Chicago, for example, have focused on Peer Mentoring and connecting freshman with juniors and seniors who can help guide, become mentors and "show younger students the ropes".

Many successful programs that focus on character development, building connections to adult and peer mentors, and those that provide "a voice" such as drama, art, music and after school clubs are simply not seen as an essential part of our children's education. Many school systems around the country, to the contrary, have been cutting such programs due to a lack of funding, lack of awareness and administrative support.

While it is true that teachers are overburdened and parents need to pull their weight at home, we must view the school settig as a sanctuary. A place where everyone can thrive, where needs can be met and creativity and passion can be sparked. We need dedicated and committed well trained staff as well as administrations that motivate, energize and lead the school population and community. We need to support the types of programs that not only improve test scores and academic achievement, but those that create social awareness, enhance student self-identity and develop a sense of belonging and connection.

Only 50% of high school students are graduating in the city of Chicago. In my estimation, we are falling 50% short of the mark.

It is unfortunate that this thread started off with such a note of hostility. It is good to see, however, that there is support for a socially oriented approach.

Even for those motivated only by teaching to the test to improve numbers (not the best way to get there, if you ask me) have to be impressed by some of the numbers coming out of programs like positive behavior support--where one of the key indicators of success for their school-wide approach is the reduction in administrator time to handle discipline after the fact. They point out that this increases administrator time for leading a learning community.

Looking at the sheer numbers of voilent acts in various places in the US, it is clear that two of the safest places in America are schools and airports. This is not due to stepped up security, metal detectors or any other security initiatives. Most schools are safer than the neighborhoods in which they sit. It is partially because of control that is in place and partially because the violent occassionally must take a break, a rest from the violence.
In any school, anywhere, students generally far outnumber teachers and administrators. If they were truely violent, chools would have closed long ago. Discipline is an agreement between those that discipline and those that are discipilined. Order is by ageement. Improved interpersonal relations in any group situation is generally a positive.

To L. Pittman: Madelyn Murray O'Hare objected to the addition of "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, and then school prayer. No student is forbidden to read the Bible in school or even to pray. It is simply not mandatory of all students and should not be.
The plain truth is that spanking works only in a limited fashion and most people punished in this manner repeat the offense but do so more discretely.
My generation grew up believing that iot was okay to trunce criminals because they were bad, but it was also handy to wear a mask or be an alien being with incredible powers.
Even with the highly publicized school shootings, schools are safer today than fifty, twenty or even ten years ago.

Let them have an "inclusive school environment" with all the "individual freedom" you can muster in a school. But let that school be as secure as a prison. Lord, deliver us from crazy people who want to die with their names in the news! And, from those who don't realize prayer is allowed in school. In our school, it's even encouraged.



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Recent Comments

  • Wendy, SEA staffer/parent: Let them have an "inclusive school environment" with all the read more
  • Bob Frangione, Teacher/Parent: To L. Pittman: Madelyn Murray O'Hare objected to the addition read more
  • Bob Frangione, teacher/Parent: Looking at the sheer numbers of voilent acts in various read more
  • Margo/Mom: It is unfortunate that this thread started off with such read more




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