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Reimagining safe schools

If you peruse various research reports on preventing school violence issued from government agencies and other organizations, two key recommendations stand out:

  • Avoid approaches that create a correctional facility like atmosphere that includes high stress drills and zero tolerance discipline policies, because they are counterproductive in preventing school violence
  • Promote approaches that create and sustain a school culture characterized by trusting and supportive relationships. Schools should intentionally strive to achieve the goal of ensuring that all students feel a strong connection to and a sense of belonging at their school.

I believe these recommendations make sense. People, in general, do not commit acts of violence at places where they feel they belong or toward others who accept and respect them.

Some schools have responded to these recommendations by taking steps to implement common-sense security policies and procedures and to improve the quality of interactions among students and staff.

But it appears that many more schools have reflexively decided to invest more of their time and resources on security measures than on improving their school culture. Since most school leaders and policy makers embrace the concept of implementing evidence-based practices for academics, why do they fail to do so when it comes to school safety?

The answer, I think, is simple: failure of imagination.

The experience of going to school hasn't changed too much across generations so our concept of school hasn't changed much over time.  Consequently, it is difficult to envision schools as being different from most people's experience.

Order and predictability are perceived as essential elements for the smooth functioning of the school environment. Therefore students need to follow directions in order to avoid disruptions to the learning environment. 

The great majority of students have little or no problem following directions and learning according to the standards established in school.  This "success" however puts an unfavorable status upon the small minority of students who have difficulty following directions and succeeding academically.  As a result, most schools are supportive and accepting environments for most students, but not for all students.

Students who have problems in school often feel like they are problems-people who need to be fixed in order to belong. Being treated with respect is frequently based on appropriate behavior -- respect must be earned and can be forfeited. It’s common for staff and students to feel that a certain amount of disrespectful treatment is warranted for those students who create problems.

The threat of school violence and the increased pressure to prevent it causes most school leaders to reflexively employ tighter measures of control directed towards those students who cause disruption and disorder. These initiatives affect all students. Even when research shows that these measures are ineffective, many school leaders feel that doing something is preferable to doing nothing.

These programs are also appealing because schools are often viewed as buildings -- not necessarily as a network of relationships. It is easier to imagine changing the school building by adding metal detectors at entrances, posting security guards in hallways and installing cameras than it is to imagine a improving the quality of the relationships within the school.

Most school leaders intuitively sense the high degree of difficulty of improving school culture, because it is so embedded within the fabric of what people think of as school.  In addition, even if an enlightened school leader wanted to significantly improve a school's culture, there is no clear road map or recipe for doing so.

No wonder why a well intentioned school administrator, after I asked him to envision each student walking through the school door every morning without having to worry about being mistreated by anyone, shook his head and with resignation replied that it was impossible to guarantee that.

That administrator is probably right about the degree of difficulty involved in achieving that goal, but this fact shouldn't diminish the importance of the moral imperative for accepting the challenge and trying to achieve it.

Making schools safer means educators must reimagine a different type of safe school -- one that more accurately reflects the recommendation from the research.

Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Schools are communities, not just groups of people who happen to be in the same place and time.
  • Communities are united by common values and beliefs that can be articuated and understood by all its members. 

  • In schools that are communities respect is a given and not something to earn or forfeit. It is unacceptable to rationalize or excuse mistreatment and disrespect toward anyone.

  • Staff members actively seek to discover students' strengths and abilities and to make all students appear valuable in the eyes of their peers.

  • Discipline means more than rule enforcement and applying consequences.  It is about helping all students learn better ways of solving their problems and achieving their goals.

  • Staff members are trained and supported in effective discipline. They have the knowledge and skills necessary to ensure that they discipline students in respectful ways.

  • Students are consistently greeted by name and have multiple positive relationships with staff and peers.  They feel confident in going to any staff person with a problem or a request for help.

  • Time and resources are invested in knowing each student as an individual and to ascertain how each student feels about going to school.

Although transforming schools into communities where all students belong is hard to imagine and difficult to achieve, it should, nonetheless, be the goal or North Star for every school community.  The journey for achieving truly safer schools might be long and difficult, but this saying offers some encouragement: "If we are facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking." 

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated, who sponsor the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He is the author of "Peaceful School Bus", "No Place for Bullying", "Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities" and the picture book "Okay Kevin."

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