The most recent school attack has intensified the sense of unease in our country. There are, sad to say, no easy answers for the questions this latest attack has generated. Well-intended people argue passionately – and at times angrily – about why attacks at schools continue to happen and how to prevent future attacks.
Government officials, parents and students, and special interest groups argue about the best ways to prevent attacks on schools. Social and professional media people say that attacks on schools are “inevitable” and demand that “something” be done – and be done NOW. What that “something” is or could be, however, seems to elude everyone. The absence of a clear and easily implemented policy creates a sense of despair shared by students, parents, teachers, and even law enforcement personnel.
While there is no “quick fix” that will protect every student in every school, there are steps that parents, students, and teachers can take to make their student’s building safer. Some of them are obvious – we create emergency plans, and we talk about and practice these plans. We create protocols in conjunction with local authorities; we review and update those plans as frequently as we can. We make as sure as we can that students and teachers understand what to do should there be an emergency.
One thing that students, teachers, and parents can remember to support the rules and procedures that schools already have in place. Every rule we have in our student handbook is there primarily to make the building as safe as possible. For instance, we prohibit allowing students to bring book bags into classrooms; this prevents a student from bringing harmful items into that classroom. Some rules seem to promote student safety less obviously; for instance, our student dress code helps draw attention to individuals who, because they are not dressed in accordance with our policy, might possibly be intruders.
Similarly, our procedure for students leaving the building during the school day is part of our bigger plan to make sure that a student on our campus has neither been taken from our campus, run away, or has left to cause harm somewhere else. These rules, when followed, allow the building staff to do the best we can to make sure students are safe when they are in our building. While the rules seem, at times, cumbersome or inconvenient, in the end they help us keep the people in our buildings as safe as possible.
Another procedure that needs to be followed concerns reporting concerns to the proper authorities. Students who hear about potential threats should share those concerns first with teachers or building administrators. Doing this allows people responsible for building safety to act to confirm the validity of any concerns, and take the appropriate steps to prevent inappropriate activity. Too often, however, students do NOT involve building administrators, teachers, or local law enforcement in determining the validity of their concerns. In such cases, by the time the appropriate individuals become aware of these concerns, there is already a sense of fear or concern among students and parents that cannot be calmed – even when the concern turns out, as almost all do, to be without any credible foundation.
Failing to report concerns to the proper authorities is usually a sign that an individual’s concern is without foundation. In my experience, students do not really believe there is a threat when they tell me things like “… somebody – I don’t know his (or her) name – told me …” or “… every one is saying …” something is going to occur. When a student claims to know about a threat but cannot tell you who told them of the threat, or why they did not think it necessary to share the information with an adult, it is highly likely that the concern is baseless. Such situations do nothing but create an unnecessary panic – one that frequently disrupts the educational process for no reason. If we want safe schools, we need to stop creating panic. We need to follow the procedures designed to mitigate or eliminate panic, while taking steps to ensure that there is no threat to our students.
Lastly, I would offer this suggestion. From what I have learned, many of the people who attempt to do harm to schools are people whose experiences in and with schools was not good. The pressures that today’s school student faces is far greater than it was for students in previous generations. Between social media, economic pressures, family concerns, and the shift from childhood to adulthood, the last thing our young people need is to deal with the idea that the whole world is watching them – and considering what they do worthy of ridicule or scorn.
This is not exactly a new phenomenon; kids have mocked or made fun of or otherwise bullied other kids since there have been kids gathered together. With social media, however, the cruelties do not remain localized – they become international. The names, the mockery, the challenges – they don’t end when you leave a class, or go home; they not only leave school with you, they go to other communities, where any number of people can find out what names a student gets called. Embarrassing moments do not fade away; they find life eternal on YouTube or Twitter.
We – and by “We,” I mean all of us – need to be mindful of the impact of hurtful and cruel actions, and be quick to demand that people whose actions are meant to cause pain and harm to others take responsibility and accountability for their actions. We need to learn how to talk face to face, not “tweet to tweet” or “post to post.” We need to demonstrate the proper ways to disagree, so that we can solve differences before they blow up into battles.
I know that there is not much reasonable and personal discourse going on these days. The popular way to disagree with someone, it seems, is to use social media to inform anyone with a phone and Internet access how worthless, stupid, and generally without value is anyone who disagrees with you. I cannot help but think that if we just talk with and to one another, we can have a positive impact on how students experience school.
We cannot prevent our students from experiencing sadness; we cannot guarantee that our students will not be physically or emotionally hurt during their school years. We can utilize the policies designed to protect students and teachers to offer the best protection we can. We can report our concerns to the proper individuals rather that use them to create a panic. We can try to be kinder and less angry toward others and in doing so create a space where people feel respected and cared about.
These things do not cost us much in the way of dollars, but the benefits they offer parents, teachers, and communities might well be priceless.