Holistic School Safety
In addition to the practical, hands-on things we as parents, educators and concerned members of the community can do to prevent and respond to gun violence in our schools, there are big-picture solutions and strategies that also need to be adressed. The following recommendations are taken from a collaborative report from the National Education Association, called Sensible Solutions for Safe Schools.
#1 Put Character in the Curriculum
We all benefit when parents and educators focus on the whole child, not just academics. We can counter overexposure to violence with exposure to etiquette and increased self-awareness, and balance curriculum with exposure to nonviolence and nonviolent conflict. Humanities classes are heavy with stories of war and violence. We need to include examples of when and how conflict was handled well. Schools can honor diversity, and help students understand that cultural differences are valuable.
Many schools are doing these things already. But they cannot be successful on their own. We as parents need to teach the values of non-violence and peaceful conflict resolution, hold our children accountable when their behavior is less than acceptable, and give them the opportunity to make amends for their actions.
Another useful strategy is focusing on a 'pro-hero' model rather than the current 'anti-bully' curriculum which is well intentioned, but points fingers and merely teaches students what not to do. A 'pro-hero' program celebrates the behavior we want to nurture.
#2 Practice and Teach Effective Conflict Resolution
'There is little debate that the endemic violence of our culture spills over into our schools. In 2008, there were 16,270 homicides in the United States, 10 percent of which were committed by juveniles and half of which began with arguments. Clearly, we have not sufficiently equipped our young people to deal with conflict, nor have we helped rehabilitate young offenders.' [NEA Sensible Solutions] Our system of punitive justice focuses solely on punishing the child, and does nothing to heal the underlying issues, instead it often exacerbates the problem.
Things we can do:
- Train faculty and students in restorative justice practices. When a student gets into trouble, it is important not just to punish (although it is often appropriate, just not sufficient), but to address the impact of the individuals' behavior. Restorative justice allows the student to take responsibility for their actions, repair the damage done, redeem themselves and ultimately learn from their experience.
- Implement a 'True Strength Walks Away' program in schools. A program like this would encourage students to walk away from confrontational and violent situations, and provide them with alternative behaviors to use.
#3 Treat a School as a Community
It is important for the staff of a school to understand the demographics and the culture of the community where their school is located. Schools can help ensure their faculty understands the physical and psychological impacts of struggles outside of school on student growth and development.
'The economic situation in many areas of our country has declined. Parents and caregivers may be absent from the home because they need to work. Students may be homeless, hungry, in need of health care, or lacking other basic human needs. A community may have newcomers to our country who are unfamiliar with the English language and scholastic expectations. Drug and alcohol use, incarcerated adults, gang violence, and many other stressors can complicate students’ emotional and intellectual growth.'
Community enrichment and after school programs have a positive impact student academics and behavior and also provide a safe place for children to be during non-school hours.
#4 Increase Access to Mental Health for Students, Educators and Families
'Due to state and federal funding cuts in education, mental health services have been significantly compromised in school settings. Students who once had access to support services for mental health issues no longer do. Some districts employ a single social worker or psychologist to service all of their students. Enrollment and eligibility determination can sometimes take months, and families and students are often left without necessary services.'
Advocating for increases in mental health care funding in general, as well as in our schools is something we all can do. Again, educators do not operate in a vacuum and we as parents and members of the community need to do our part. We can advocate for better funding so they can do their job well. Utah is last in per-pupil spending by a landslide. We can do better.
Some solutions we can all advocate for:
- Secure funding for mental health programs in all districts to increase the number of counselors, social workers and psychologists in schools.
- Develop curriculum and teaching material to increase awareness and understanding and reduce the social stigma of mental illness.
- Provide direct mental health care servies for students in school.
- Increase professional development for educators and staff to identify at-risk behaviors.
#5 Ensure the Security of School Buildings
'Keeping school buildings safe has many challenges. For instance, many schools were not designed and built with safety as a priority, and have uncontrolled and multiple access points. Frequently, school personnel and students do not understand the importance of adhering to safety policies. Parents and others who regularly visit schools feel they are entitled to free and easy access to buildings.'
Solutions we can advocate for:
- Partner with law enforcement to develop security action plans and conduct school safety audits. Determine if doors and other access points are secure, panic buttons or other technology is working properly, and staff are following communication protocols.
- Write action plans in plain language that is easy to follow. Include short, straightforward steps that are easy to remember. Inform, train and drill faculty, staff and students.
- Make capital improvements to control access to facilities. Limit multiple points of entry. Many schools, especially inner city schools make students pass through metal detectors. This might be something certain schools in Utah could consider.
- Invest in real-time communication technology. Smartphones with texting capabilities can help staff communicate quickly, rather than using the school PA, which everyone can hear, or walkie-talkies which others can hear as well.
- Fund at least one School Resource Officer for every school wherever possible.
- Decrease average class sizes. Mass shooters appear to choose their targets because of a personal connection to a place where people assemble and the number of bodies per unit of space.
#6 Strengthen Connections Between Schools and Communities
Schools can create opportunities for staff and students to connect to the surrounding community, and conversely, for the community to connect with the school. Positive activities help make residents feel allied with the school. Another idea is requiring community service as a part of the educational experience for graduation. This integrates students with the community, helps to advance their future career goals, builds character and increases self-awareness.
#7 Change the Debate about Guns in Schools
Support common-sense restrictions on firearms and firearm accessories.
- Require background checks for all firearms bought and sold.
- Increase the background check requirement to include restrictions based on psychological history.
- Strengthen laws on high-powered military style weapons and high-capacity magazines. Reduced access to such destructive weapons could have decreased the number of lives lost before first responders arrived at Sandy Hook Elementary. The Newtown killer shot over 150 bullets in about four minutes.
Increase the presence of School Resource Officers on school grounds. An SRO is not a total guarantee against violence occurring in a school. Columbine High School had an armed SRO on the premises in 1999, and Virginia Tech had an armed campus police force. Nonetheless, an SRO would provide peace of mind and a greater level of security. The challenge for districts is the cost of employing an SRO or guard in every school.
We at Utah Parents Against Gun Violence want to note that 1) we have many constant, ongoing gun violations in our schools, 2) we have the need for more SROs to address threats of gun violence in our schools, and 3) we allow armed teachers in Utah as a solution to this violence-- all of these should be red flags that something is very wrong with the way we are regulating guns in our state and in our country. If we cannot afford to increase the number of officers in our schools and cannot adequately address threats of gun violence without condoning or enabling more violence with our children in the crossfire, then we must at the very least support sensible gun legislation to help prevent these situations.
Teachers, Faculty and School Administrators should not be in this alone. We as parents and members of the community should be doing everything in our power to ensure they receive the resources and help they need to make our schools more safe. It is up to us to advocate for better gun laws, access to mental health care, and funding so our children receive a quality education in a safe, secure environment free from threats of all types of violence.