02 January 2013

On school safety

I think it's safe to say that I haven't written here on the Blaze of Competence nearly recently enough. I would make excuses (job, baby, sleep) but if I won't take excuses from students for late work, I won't offer them to you. (feel free to enjoy this at 70% of your normal enjoyment, since I did turn it in late, and that's the penalty for complete late work that I impose)

It isn't that I haven't had anything to say. In fact, looking in the "drafts" folder, I have plenty of started posts, talking about NCLB, Race to the Top (RTTT), principals, testing, and the glory of AP classes. All of them get to about this point (the end of a moderately related and entertaining introduction) , and then they turn into an outline of other things I'd like to talk about. I just can't seem to get focused.

However, I'm on Christmahanakwanzaka break, so I thought I'd grab some time while the baby naps to hop onto the BlazeBlog and knock out some content. This is hardly unprecedented. Two years ago I squandered my October Break writing a list of 12 things that were wrong with schools. (It's still an entertaining read, if I do say so myself.) This year I'm not going to be nearly as ambitious. Instead, it'll be catch as catch can, but anticipate me posting more often than I have (which is to say, more than once every two months.)

Obviously, the major reporting on schools as we left for break was the Sandy Hook massacre. There were facebook and twitter comments by the millions. There were teachers who were heroes, giving themselves up to the gunman to save the lives of their students. We swore we would, in the cliched words of our generation, "never forget". Memorial stickers were applied to sports uniforms to show support, whatever that meant.

Yet here we are, not even a month later, and we basically have forgotten. My timeline and twitter feed show no mentions of the shooting, and calls for gun control have been surpassed by the need to pose and posture over the fiscal cliff. The timing of the shooting, combined with our increasingly short attention spans have moved it out of the consciousness of the nation. Really, why shouldn't it? School massacres are a terrifyingly common part of our existence.

However, this time, our good friends at the National Rifle Association took the opportunity to say that this wasn't about guns (a position I find somewhat laughable, since guns (yes, yes, yes operated by people) have been at the center of the vast majority of those shootings), but rather this was about school security. The NRA wants to implement something it calls the "school shield" program, where retired military and police would serve as armed guards at schools.

Never mind that proposal (actually, parenthetically, mind it. It won't work. For about eleventy-million reasons, but most of all because even in schools with active law enforcement (see High School, Columbine) on duty in the school, shooters will still have free reign, if only because they intend to kill, and a guard must hesitate before shooting, and therefore will be the first to die. Also, because the last thing we want to do is to make school feel MORE like a prison, which is precisely what having an armed guard or two on campus will do) because it will never happen, but let's talk about how we can make schools safer.

(Just so we're clear on this, I don't pretend to be a school safety expert. However, I've been in classrooms for a decade, in 6 different schools, 2 of which were in Colorado and built post-Columbine, and the current one in which a student was found in possession of a weapon during school hours during finals, and no one was hurt; so I probably have as much experience as an expert, but I don't call myself an expert.)

I think there are two ways you can make schools safer. One of them people will latch onto because it's easy to implement and track, one of them would be much more effective, but people won't latch onto it, because like good teaching techniques the world over, it's hard to measure.

1. Secure Campuses

Schools have been designed to be easy to get into and out of. This is for a very practical reason: the kids all come and go at the same time. Therefore, schools have lots of doors. In fact, in California, schools are mostly sprawling outdoor campuses, where every single classroom has at least one door that opens to the out doors, if not more.  Campuses need to be secured. In my last Colorado school, visitors could only enter through one door after the tardy bell rang. Inside that door they were in a "fish-bowl" of glass, and had to move through a second door to enter the school proper. That's good security (although if you have a really determined shooter it won't matter), but that's the most recent school design you can imagine. Most schools in this country are much older than that. Retrofitting them with one-in systems could require significant redesigns of the very architecture of the school. This could cost literally billions of dollars nation-wide. I'm not saying it wouldn't be worth it, but that money could really do more good paying for more teachers and smaller classes.

2. Build a culture of trust

The day before Christmas Break, a knucklehead at my school brought a gun to school. It was a handgun, and (evidently) 50 rounds for said weapon. He was found not because he brandished the weapon, or because he was searched by an armed guard, but because his peers reported him to a district program which students can use to report dangerous situations. Students are only willing to report things like this, and avert crisis, when they feel that they are important, valued, and that their tips will be acted upon.

Further, many dangerous situations have indicators that the people who should see them miss, and yet we seem to often see interviews where peers of a shooter say that they had concerns. With the pervasiveness of social media, often many people can see these warnings. If we build a culture of trust with students, they will be willing to share their concerns about things they see and hear, and schools and authorities can act to get those who are disturbed the help they so desperately need.

This culture represents a shift. For a long time, schools have dictated to students and students were expected to act as sponges for those dictations. However, as we move into a new world of constant change, students need to become partners in learning. We as teachers need to move away from the model where we were all knowing (although we still need to be the smartest person in the room) and shift to a model where we are partners with students, teaching them not just content, but also evaluate the information they are receiving and to create new ways of looking at that information.

If students are partners in learning, then there is a relationship, not of friendship, per se, but a relationship of learning. That involves trust, and if it is done right, students will confide in teachers, and share threats, and those can be dealt with in a calm and deliberate manner. 

I, for one, would prefer calmness to crisis any day.       

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