Opinion
School Climate & Safety Commentary

Sandy Hook Elementary: A Special School

By Jim Dillon — December 21, 2012 4 min read

From all accounts, Sandy Hook Elementary School is a very special school. In their efforts to ensure school safety, those at Sandy Hook did everything right, all the experts agree. The news media are full of stories of how the entire community has pulled together in the aftermath of the Dec. 14 shootings, and how much strength individuals are drawing from those community bonds.

In the wake of last week’s tragedy, I decided to visit the Newtown, Conn., school district website and the pages for Sandy Hook Elementary to learn more about this district and school.

What became instantly clear was that this strong community did not just happen by chance, but rather that the district and Sandy Hook have emphasized community as an essential element for learning for some time.

On a website now dominated by a message about counseling services and where to send donations, you can still scroll down to a link to Newtown’s “core beliefs,” which offers a testament to what matters to its schools and its members.

Here are a few of those core beliefs:

We believe that:

Honesty, integrity, respect, and open communication build trust.

Quality education expands the opportunities for individuals and is vital to the success of the entire community.

Educating children is a shared responsibility of the entire community.

Educated and involved citizens are essential for sustaining a democratic society.

Everyone has the responsibility to contribute to the greater good of the community.

These core beliefs are further articulated in Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung’s Web page, which I urge everyone to read. There is one word from the district’s core beliefs that keeps repeating in her message, and that’s “community.”

Here are some excerpts from the “Sandy Hook School Principal’s Page”:

Sandy Hook School is a special place, and we thank our community for helping us to maintain our positive school climate.

By encouraging individuals to:
THINK YOU CAN | WORK HARD | GET SMART | BE KIND | HAVE FUN
we support each child in his or her personal journey to strive for excellence both in academic endeavors and in being a positive member of our school community.

We stress the tenets of building a strong community in daily activities throughout Sandy Hook School. Our Responsive Classroom approach focuses on the benefits of a climate of kindness and respect where all community members feel accepted, important, and secure.

We pledge to continue in our efforts to provide the best possible learning opportunities for our students, to ensure that they are valued members of our community, to encourage them to become good citizens, and to work closely with the entire Newtown community for the benefit of our children.

Every school should learn about how Sandy Hook educated its children in the years and days prior to the tragedy.”

Emphasizing community does not mean forgetting the individual. Quite the opposite, a school with a strong sense of community creates the optimal learning environment that allows individuals to work hard, take risks, and excel. One individual’s success is intimately linked to everyone’s success. There is a great sense of “we are in this together,” which forms the basis for responsible citizenship. Students learn to be responsible beyond just what the rules dictate and learn to do so based on internal values nurtured in an environment that respects the unique value of each community member.

Ironically, I did not see any sign of a bullying-prevention program or a positive-behavior program being implemented at Sandy Hook. This is not an oversight. A school like Sandy Hook Elementary has a culture and climate that prevents and reduces bullying by its everyday practices. Caring, respect, and community are the strongest antidotes to bullying, and those are clearly paramount for this school. Bullying prevention for Sandy Hook apparently is not an add-on program designed to comply with law, policy, and regulations. In this school, caring, respect, and responsibility were built into the DNA.

In a school that emphasizes community, the most important rule is the Golden Rule, and it applies to everyone, especially those who are in authority and who have power. This type of school does not believe that every mistake or infraction requires a consequence, nor does it feel that every act of kindness and goodness needs to be rewarded. Doing good and caring are rewarding in and of themselves. In fact, schools that emphasize community know that always rewarding caring and kind acts devalues them in the eyes of students. Being in an environment, being part of a community, that meets their needs is the best and only reward students need to learn and grow.

A school environment like the one I imagine at Sandy Hook Elementary develops people who are empowered bystanders, leaders, responsible citizens, and heroes. Again, it does not happen by chance or accident. These people respect, care, and, if necessary, protect one another.

I hope this story of Sandy Hook Elementary School is the one that gets told and retold. Every school should learn about how Sandy Hook educated its children in the years and days prior to the tragedy. The best way to honor and pay tribute to Sandy Hook Elementary is to recognize and embrace its values, beliefs, and practices. Having more and more schools like Sandy Hook will make our entire nation a stronger community of caring and responsible citizens working for the common good.

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2013 edition of Education Week

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