John Merrow –
Now that public schools have reopened, school safety is receiving a lot of attention…and promises of money (here and here and here)…..and, while that’s a good thing, what’s not good are the exceptionally narrow parameters of the discussion of the issue of safety–i.e., how those dollars are being spent.
If we want our kids to be safe at school, those schools must be emotionally, intellectually and physically safe. Three related components, all essential, discussed in some detail below.
However, from what I have learned from news reports, beefing up school security is priority #1, with more (armed) guards and security police and more metal detectors. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is on record as approving the spending of federal funds to buy weapons for teachers, perhaps the most idiotic suggestion ever made by a United States Secretary of Education.
Politicians who are enthusiastic about enhanced security measures don’t seem to be willing to address a root cause of school violence, the easy availability of guns. Doing the latter would upset the NRA, something most politicians won’t do.
Of course, the prospect of more money has attracted a crowd. Eager tech-savvy capitalists have created programs which, for a fee, will spy on student postings on Facebook and elsewhere and then alert school authorities about any comments that their algorithms find upsetting. (more here.) (That most kids don’t use Facebook these days is just one of the problems with this approach.)
In July I was privileged to spend two days at the annual meeting of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the men and women I spoke with or heard from were very concerned about security. To a person, their preferred approach was more counseling, not metal detectors, police, or armed teachers. They said that they need Preventive services to identity and provide help for troubled kids.
If we truly want safe schools, we need to focus on the needs of children of all ages. We need to recognize that, where schools are concerned, “safety” has three components: physical, emotional, and intellectual. As noted above, today’s focus is just on physical safety, even though the other two are, arguably, more important.
An emotionally safe school in one in which every student is known to at least one caring adult, preferably more than one. That old cliché, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” is spot on. Emotionally safe schools are staffed with adults who are trained to deal with the ups and downs that are part of every child’s life. These schools have structures that allow kids to be open, such as extended homeroom periods that create a positive ‘home-like’ atmosphere. In emotionally safe schools, the adult leaders encourage older students to model positive behavior and to intervene in bullying, saying, in effect, “We don’t do that here.” (I devote quite a few pages to this important subject in “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” and hope you will take a look.)
Next, an intellectually safe school is one in which it’s OK to display your ignorance, to admit “I don’t understand,” and to ask questions. Intellectually safe schools encourage curiosity, crayoning outside the lines, and other expressions of individuality, and teachers are quick to support the kids who are willing to stick out their necks. When other kids laugh or mock these students, teachers respond by showing their disapproval of the mockery and their support for the courageous students.
Teachers can model this behavior in order to set the tone. So, for example, at the end of a presentation the teacher should ask, “What questions do you have?” because that phrasing expects and encourages questions. Teachers should NOT ask, “Does anyone have any questions?” because that phrasing subtly discourages questions.
Intellectually safe schools challenge kids. They employ technology to create knowledge, not just to compile data on student attendance and achievement. Students who are challenged are less likely to use technology to harass and bully weaker and younger kids, which makes schools safer. (I also address this in “Addicted to Reform.”)
Schools that are both intellectually and emotionally safe are staffed with adults who look at each child and ask NOT “How smart is this kid?” but “How is this young person smart?” Asking that question–and acting on the answer–makes all the difference.
When schools are emotionally and intellectually safe, it’s easier for them to be physically safe. However, it’s not automatic, because unacceptable conditions may actually create unsafe schools, most of which are, in my experience, overcrowded and understaffed. If we want physically safe schools, we have to provide the resources to hire enough qualified teachers, and we have to attend to the physical condition of the buildings. Many of America’s public schools are in deplorable condition.) It should go without saying that physically safe schools have clear rules and procedures for dealing with physical bullying and other violence.
Simply spending more money won’t make our children safe. Spending it wisely, and spending most of it on human resources–not metal detectors, monitoring programs, armed guards, or guns for teachers–is our best chance to keep children safe.
What questions do you have?