School Climate & Safety Opinion

Leading Safe Schools in an Environment That Lacks Civility

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 11, 2016 5 min read
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Picture this: In a student assembly held to allow candidates for class offices to make the case to vote for them, a student candidate speaks about the other candidates more than she does her positions. She calls her opponents unethical, unfit, ugly, and a retarded loser who belongs in the dumb classes, or says they are in honors classes through connections their parents have with school faculty, or, alternatively, they aren’t smart enough for advanced classes and will probably flunk out and not fit enough to be an athlete. This is followed by a riff on who they date and what they do. The audience reacts resoundingly with roars of applause. Teachers, uneasy, stand up and cluster in side aisles wondering what the advisor was going to do and what they should anticipate next. We have entered the era of speaking your mind, or tweeting it.

As a skilled educational leader you are probably thinking about the limits to free speech found at the school doors. The students are legally required to be there and can’t leave the auditorium of their own volition. So this gives educators the right to intervene and have some control over what is being presented...or does it? Imagine the parental defense as not only free speech, but as a fair for election competition to be conducted and they end the meeting you called to address this issue by calling you a name as they walk out.

Society’s New Normal?
In this political environment, with policy pushed into the background while insults and name-calling move to the foreground, the likelihood of ripple into our world becomes greater. The problem is our society is viewing a different kind of news cycle. Added to the wars, acts of terror, mass shootings, questions about police behavior with African Americans, we are seeing an election cycle like none in recent memory. Name-calling is regular and honesty is being redefined before our eyes.

This is how our students and their parents have spent their summer and it will continue into the fall. Any time the newspaper (some of you remember those print things) is opened or the TV is on, or their dot com news arrives in their inbox, this new normal is the headline. Somehow, we must resist if hope is to survive. We can’t let this become a new normal within schools.

Getting Out in Front
To get out in front of all of this, to prevent the scenario from happening, or planning for when it does, consider how your classroom, school, district can be proactive. Character education has been part of our work for decades. Before the year falls into normal routines, consider a system-wide discussion about the value of respectful communication.

Knowing each community and the school that lives within it is different, each district has the best handle on deciding for themselves what possible scenarios may appear, in which arenas of the organization, and agree on how these situations will be addressed. Perhaps a back-to-school conversation with parents or a posting on your website of the data about children and caring about others. Here you can find an infographic from Harvard that answers the question, “Are We Raising Caring Kids?”

Leading Safe Schools
Respect, responsibility, conflict resolution, compassion and honesty help create healthy school environments and promote healthy relationships. How can each school call forward these 5 qualities and recommit to developing and supporting them? Without disparaging candidates or their surrogates, but openly questioning their behavior that runs counter to the values to which we hold ourselves and our students demands disciplined leadership from teachers and leaders simultaneously. Finding the language to use when confronted with behavior and language that is being modeled by candidates for the highest office in the land takes thinking, planning, and agreement.

From a recent article in The Atlantic

The 2012 Josephson Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth reveals a pressing need to integrate elements of character education into the country’s public-school curriculums. According to the study, 57 percent of teens stated that successful people do what they have to do to win, even if it involves cheating. Twenty-four percent believe it is okay to threaten or hit someone when angry. Thirty-one percent believe physical violence is a big problem in their schools. Fifty-two percent reported cheating at least once on an exam. Forty-nine percent of students reported being bullied or harassed in a manner that seriously upset them.

In New York, Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) demands that no student be discriminated against for their actual or perceived race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, gender or sex. The NYSED website reports the intention of the law is to maintain a safe and supportive environment for k-12 students that is free from “discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment, and bullying on school property, a school bus and/or at a school function.” Although it may appear common sense, New York legislated these behaviors for schools.

In order for schools to function well, for learning to happen without distraction in safe and supportive environments, behaviors like name-calling, discriminating, intimidating, taunting, harassing, and bullying be accepted without hurting children and our future as a society. The modeling of these negative behaviors all over the media raises the flag for us. We must plant it firmly.

In the End
It is most certainly time for schools to pay attention. Students learn from watching, so modeling is key. But students also learn from being guided as they analyze current events. This is already something that can be found in some classrooms, some offices, in some activities, or in some hallways. In order for schools to remain safe and encouraging, a recommitment to this mission is called for and the models must be in every classroom and every hallway and every bus and every office. This is especially true after a summer of watching name-calling, discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassing, and bullying by the adults we seek to follow. These are the conversations and the actions that are needed now. Otherwise, how will all the good learning that is being planned for as schools move forward happen? The environment that will support it has to be safe. Much attention is being paid to the Second Amendment these days. And, safety will be enhanced, hopefully, as a result. But, for us, it is the First Amendment where safety often begins or is lost. What we say matters. We must teach that deeply traditional message to our youth. A respectful environment in which all students are safe is essential. Remember, the students watch us and learn how to relate to each other, what free speech is, and how democracy works.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.