The Obama administration’s release of its “Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans” stirred up discussion among educators everywhere. Some agreed with the report, some worried about it, and others were angered by it. It made people think and talk. This is pretty much the job of any report, if you ask me.
An amazing experience I was fortunate to have a few months before the report was released June 18 had a big influence on my view of the report and its recommendations.
I was part of a group of more than 100 teachers who shared our opinions in an online forum sponsored by the Chicago-based nonprofit New Voice Strategies in a partnership with the National Education Association, of which I am a member in my home state of Colorado. The forum took place on VIVA (voices, ideas, vision, action) Idea Exchange, and the topic of discussion was “creating safer schools.”
Eleven of us debated the issue of school safety without ever meeting in the same room. It was hard work, and we didn’t always agree, but we learned how to compromise.
So when I read the administration’s report, I was coming to it with this experience behind me. Of course, there were recommendations I agreed with and others I didn’t, but what excited and pleased me the most was that the report encouraged a collaborative planning process in working through school safety issues.
The first of the report’s six steps for developing and implementing a school safety plan calls for the formation of a collaborative team with all school stakeholders represented at the table. This, I now know, is the most crucial stage in the process of creating a safe school.
What I have now learned from my experience with the forum—and it did not come easily—is the importance of teamwork over the charged matter of how to protect students on school property. It is critical. If teachers alone were to come up with a plan, they would love it, but the administration, students, and parents would not. If parents were to create a plan, they would love it, but they would have a tough time finding support among the teachers, administrators, and students. And if the school administration were to devise a safety strategy ... well, you can see the pattern here. In a truly collaborative process, everyone gets a chance to speak and to be heard. But listening in a group can also prompt all sorts of negative reactions, including, “How could a reasonable person believe that?” And yet, if you were to probe beyond this negative thinking, you might discover that there is validity to another person’s point of view.
Our group of 11 teachers had widely differing views on the value and appropriate use of school resource police officers. Many in the group had questions and concerns, including the basic worry about having officers in an elementary school setting. In our discussions, we discovered that some of our colleagues imagined these officers as menacing, stern, and unfriendly armed guards. Others pictured the “friendly officer"—the kind who speaks to children and gets involved in school-based activities. But the sticking point of our discussion—the one big issue we struggled with the most—was around arming teachers in schools.
The White House report on school safety does not recommend arming teachers. But it does recommend that teachers consider confronting a shooter, if there are no other options. These recommendations are for the absolute worst situation—an armed shooter on school property. Although extremely rare and horrifying to imagine, it is important to consider.
What I have now learned from my experience with the forum—and it did not come easily—is the importance of teamwork over the charged matter of how to protect students on school property.”
While our group of teachers could not reach an agreement about this issue, there was passionate and good reasoning on both sides. My thinking was that when first responders arrive to take down a shooter, I don’t want the first person they see with a gun to be the math teacher. But another member of our group expressed the desire to be able to protect her kindergarten students with more than her body. On the matter of confronting the shooter? Oh, gosh. At 5-foot-2 and 106 pounds, and with no training, I would not be of much use. I would have to talk him out of his gun. Others thought confronting a gunman made sense. But this is what I believe the Obama administration’s recommendation is designed to do: empower and encourage staff and students to say, “I will do something.” Our group felt compelled to do just that.
In the end, our online discussion didn’t come down on one side or the other on the matter of arming teachers, which, I believe, is a reflection of how this issue is playing out across the country. Yes, there were strong feelings on both sides of the fence, but because there was no consensus, we decided it was an issue best left to local school districts.
Our small group understood that we could not dictate how any school, including our own, would move forward with our recommendations. From our discussion, we produced a report, “Sensible Solutions for Safer Schools,” that preceded the administration’s, which we knew was in the pipeline. We saw our recommendations as a menu of options, from which we hoped districts would pick and choose, according to what made the most sense for them.
In April in Washington, our group of 11 teachers presented our report in separate, private meetings to NEA President Dennis Van Roekel and his staff, as well as the staff of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Speaking on behalf of our cohort of teachers, I hope that this will become a model of how adults can learn and work together to create safer schools everywhere.
A version of this article appeared in the August 21, 2013 edition of Education Week as The Route to School Safety Begins With Collaboration