At a statewide forum on school safety sponsored by the NJ School Boards Association on January 18, 2013, more than 700 educational leaders discussed the issue of school safety and security in light of the unfathomable deaths in Sandy Hook Elementary School. Why it takes a tragedy to force us to think about things that were no less important the day before that tragedy, we can lament. But now, we must act, and act wisely.
The right question to ask is not simply about student safety. We must address the overwhelming wellbeing of our children and the climate and culture of the schools in which they spend 180 school days each year for so many years. I do not want to minimize the events in Newtown but children are most affected by what happens around them every day.
And every day, when children come to schools hungry, afraid of harassment, intimidation, or bullying, or of neighborhood violence, or if they are involved in alcohol or tobacco or other drug use, or if they are victims of unkindness, or consumed by their educators' anxiety over standards and standardized tests, they are not able to learn to their potential. It will be the unusual child who will worry every day about a crazed gunman breaking down the school door. And for every child who may be reassured by the presence of armed guards, more children are likely to be more anxious. That is the dilemma we face.
Ultimately, the decision about how to increase security in schools is political and financial. From a public health perspective, there is no clear way to prevent the kind of determined and well-armed intruder who seeks to do harm to children in or around schools. At the conference, Raymond Hayducka, the Chief of Police and Coordinator of the Emergency Management Office in South Brunswick, NJ, was highly articulate about the importance of ensuring that anyone with weapons in the school is highly trained and fully coordinated with the policy.
This only comes from having a police officer in the school or from a well-regarded security agency with known relationships with the police force in one's district. A retired officer or a private guard has no legal authority and the school has no assurance of how well versed they are in the current and ever-changing standards for dealing with armed intruders.
The Chief also spoke eloquently about how, if a decision is made to not have armed personnel in schools, it is wise to increase policy patrols around and in schools, as well as police involvement in emergency response and evacuation plans, including the conduct of a security audit.
Helping Students Understand More Police Presence
From a social-emotional learning point of view, the question that looms is how do the inevitable increases in security, including greater police presence, affect children. It does not take special insight to realize that some kids will be put off, and others will hardly notice or, if they notice, will not care. A few are likely to feel a sense of reassurance. However, the greatest harm comes from not confronting the issues directly.
Handling changes in school safety procedures involves explicit, conversations with children and parents. Recognize first that for young children -- through elementary school -- the key goal is to provide reassurance. They should not have any sense of danger in their school and it is likely that the vast majority will have put the Sandy Hook shootings out of their minds.
For secondary students, the goal is to express prudent caution. Again, there should be no sense of imminent danger, but older students can be told that in light of Sandy Hook, the school wants to be extra careful and so certain steps are being taken. I believe this is the approach to take with parents, as well -- there is no reason to expect assault in the schools and so a measured, appropriate response is being taken to be on the side of reasonable safety.
But there is more -- from a SEL point of view. This is a tremendous learning opportunity to help children understand not only the role of the police in their lives, but other emergency services providers. These include firefighters, EMS technicians, and sanitation workers. If there is a greater police presence in the schools, ensure that this becomes a teachable moment and help students understand everything that police do, and invite other emergency service providers into the school to discuss what they do, walk around and be visible to students, and help all students understand that their safety in all respects is important. The community cares about them and they should appreciate this.
By so doing, we allow the focus to shift from security and danger to caring and concern. What happened in Newtown must not distract us from recognizing that the greatest safety for the greatest number of individuals comes from a safe, caring, supportive, academically challenging, healthy school culture and climate.
In such schools, students learn to be empathic to their classmates, including those who are different, and to be upstanders, not bystanders. They learn that violence is not a way to solve problems and they learn how to manage their strong emotions. These schools embrace students who are suffering from mental health difficulties, ensuring that they get needed services, and, should they drop out or otherwise leave, that they are followed.
A nurturing and positive school culture and climate provides the conditions that best allow schools to carry out their mission of educating children for success in school and life and preparing them to be responsible, productive, caring adult participants in their families, workplaces, and civic contexts.