School Climate & Safety Opinion

Discipline and Safety on the Front Burner

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 09, 2014 5 min read
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Secretary of Education Duncan and Attorney General Holder just released guidelines telling us how to discipline students. A two year agenda comes to fruition as they have teamed up to stop inequitable treatment of students based on race. That disparity is attributed to our policies, decisions and biases. With embarrassment, we concede that this may be true...partially, at least. It merits an examination of our consciences and it also should call for consideration of causes and community coalitions to solve the problem. It cannot be simply an issue remedied in schools.

As our attention to safety has increased and our focused energies coalesce around common core and accountability, perhaps patience has declined. The data from a 2011 landmark study of nearly a million Texas children showed that suspension increased the likelihood of repeating a grade that year and landing in the juvenile-justice system the next year. It also was linked to dropping out of school. More recently, a new study from the Office of Civil Rights adds data about arrests and police involvement. Safety concerns increased the presence of police in schools ...and armed teachers and fear, by the way. See our thoughts about zero tolerance.

School district leaders, themselves, have been looking at the data, examining policies about suspensions and police referrals, and seeking to reinsert judgment into “react only” policies. But, today, the next national solution for us to implement arrives.

We don’t want to be in a position, again, of fighting against legislation once enacted. Duncan’s observation that this is a community issue and the fact that these are guidelines are helpful. We need to be prepared to step out with an opinion of our own as these issues hit the headlines. The debate about how to keep our children safe in schools continues. After all, doesn’t the whole community share the responsibility to keep the children safe?

The questions that we need to consider are boundless and district locations may make a difference, but a brief scan of the landscape assures us that there is no pattern that we can count on. What seems to be constant, however, are the mental health challenges that children exhibit and their need to express themselves with violence compounds the complexity. We cannot have a debate about school safety, particularly guns in schools, without having a mental health debate.

In the meantime, we are still charged with the safety of our students. ‘En loco parentis.’ And we should have a say in how we do that. Immediate concern for controlling access to the building has been addressed in most schools and continues to be reevaluated across the country. But from Columbine to Sandy Hook, we have not yet found the way to prevent gun violence from walking into our hallways and classrooms.

Schools leaders and teachers are focused on safety and working hard at creating and maintaining environments in which children attend school, feel safe, are safe, and are engaged learners. Without the first three, learning is at risk. But what are we doing about those children who feel marginalized, frightened, threatened or behave differently? While we are locking our doors, installing cameras, and hiring guards to protect us from the threat entering our building...all of which are positive things...we should also be spending time, training, and money on the attention needed by those at risk students in our buildings.

Reflecting on what we wrote in August, “Antoinette Tuff opened her heart to Michael Brandon Hill, the 20 year old, heavily armed man with a mental health problem who was off his medications.” We wondered about whether, in the midst of all else that is going on, schools elevated the value of how we treat each other to a level of attention and in some cases, training. Money hasn’t prevented schools from hiring security staff. Money has not prevented schools from purchasing camera equipment. Money should not be the reason we are not providing on-going training for faculty and staff about how to address the challenge of children who demonstrate anti-social behavior.

While schools are spending time and money on physically securing the building, attention to maintaining processes regarding student emotional safety must be paid as well. Those working in schools, including the custodians and secretaries, know the children who are at risk. It is not that we don’t know who they are, rather it is we may not have the resources to manage these students. If we are to teach these children and hold them and ourselves accountable for a growing amount of information and skills, we need help when it comes to the outliers. We already know who they are. Are we suspending them because we don’t know what else to do?

New York State published Seven Steps for Schools to Take to Ensure Positive School Climate and a Safer Learning Environment for all! Included are personalizing the school environment, analyzing student conduct data, giving attention to areas of concern, replicating program strengths, and engaging parents and community. However, our attention is sometimes pulled to the physical safety issues and the careful attention paid to the consequences given to those who break the rules. But neither changes the internal and external lives of those students, who will not graduate, and have lost the opportunity we offer. Once out of our hands, some of these children commit school violence, while others end up in the justice or mental health systems.

It is not our responsibility alone, but we are the place that all children pass through. We have the eyes and the ears and the hearts. These children need our help and we need the help from beyond our walls. We cannot stop providing physical safety. But, we might be getting a new opportunity to come together as educators, parents, students and law enforcement officials, and find agreement about conduct in schools and discipline and safety. And when talking about safety, we need to be the advocates for our troubled students, our outliers, those who struggle. Guards at our front doors attempt to keep trouble out but we have the seeds of trouble within. Legislation will likely not attend that aspect of our challenge. It is our conversation to lead.

We need partnerships that will help all students by enriching our schools with a different kind of safety. For some, reaching out and caring makes the difference. We want all students to belong to, and in, the school community. No matter from where the intervention comes, our caring makes a difference. So while thinking, sharing, coming together and advocating, it is important that schools remain caring. That is a safety measure, too.

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