On the same day this month that U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings opened a Bush administration summit on school violence, newspapers across the country reported a fourth outbreak of such violence in two weeks.
This time it was in Joplin, Mo., where a student gunman, just 13 years old, was wearing a dark green trench coat and carrying an assault rifle. “Please don’t make me do this,” the boy said before firing a shot into the ceiling. Police said he had a “well thought-out plan” to terrorize his school.
“All of us who are parents know it’s frightening,” said Secretary Spellings, explaining the need for the Oct. 10 school safety summit and urging schools to make sure they have a response plan for crises—and that “every single person who needs to know is aware of what the plan is.”
As school leaders heed the secretary’s important advice, I implore them to think deeply about this issue—and about what their schools can do to help keep people safe. Although physical violence of this nature is exceedingly rare in schools, the conditions that lead up to shootings by students are not.
For the long term, supportive communities are not built on fear and metal, but on strong relationships, social trust, and a commitment to give all children the skills and self-confidence they need to be visible to others in meaningful, responsible ways.
Visibility is a crucial metaphor for school safety because it reminds us that all young people need to learn how to be constructively “seen” and heard, and it encourages us to work toward “seeing” a shared vision of the future, one that reconnects to our country’s founding idea of a nation committed to individual freedom, social justice, and equality of opportunity for all.
Today, too many children attend school each day with the horrible certitude of their own invisibility. Each April 20, we mark another anniversary of the Columbine massacre—our country’s most violent example of what happens when students who feel silenced and marginalized undertake the most destructive of means to become visible to others.
Student-led violence should remind us that if we fail to equip future generations of Americans with the skills they need to make themselves visible to others our schools remain vulnerable to the rampages of our most disaffected citizens.
This is a problem that runs far deeper than the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School or more recent attacks. Flash back to March of this year, for example, when students in France took to the streets to protest a proposed new employment law—later withdrawn by the government in the face of overwhelming pressure. You’ll recall that alarming numbers of France’s young people were unemployed, and that, as of March 30, two-thirds of its universities were overrun by students, on strike, or closed.
In an article from that day’s edition of the British newspaper The Guardian, one of the protest’s young leaders, a 17-year-old girl named Floréal Mangin, described waking up during the first few days of the protest to burned cars in her neighborhood. Often, she said, as she watched her classmates do it, she would think about what it takes to make someone reach that point. “They were destroying their own neighborhood,” she said, “smashing their families’ cars, but they had no other way of telling the world they existed.”
Her words should make us sit up and take notice. Like those French youths, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, and other youthful killers have lived in a world in which words and language were useless, unreliable tools. Their choices were different, but the motivation behind their destructive acts, it seems to me, was the same: They felt they had no other way of telling the world they existed. That’s a type of hopelessness that can only result in desperation, anger, and resignation. In fact, I was shocked to read later that the rallying cry for the young French protesters was not “What do we want? When do we want it?”—the familiar, optimistic refrain uttered at American rallies for decades. It was “We are disposable pieces of sh—!”
Each incident of student-led violence should remind us that if we fail to equip future generations of Americans with the skills they need to make themselves visible to others, or if—far worse—we simply do not value the inclusion of their voices to begin with, our schools and our society remain vulnerable to the rampages of our most disaffected citizens.
But how do schools create safer, more inclusive school cultures, and how do we ensure that all people have the understanding, motivation, and skills they need to become active, visible contributors to the common good?
We can begin by strengthening the following three arenas:
• Climate. Across the last three decades of research, studies have identified a strong relationship between school safety and the establishment of a modern code of discipline that is developed “bottom up” and includes the input of students, teachers, support staff, and parents. As the University of Delaware psychologist George G. Bear has written: “Self-discipline connotes internal motivation for one’s behavior, the internalization of democratic ideals, and is most evident when external regulations of behavior are absent.”
• Voice. Contrary to popular belief, our right to free speech is not the reason schools are unsafe. Properly understood and applied, it’s a powerful solution that can help lead to safer schools. But if we want students to develop a greater sense of identity and community, adults must be willing to help them discover, in an authoritative and caring setting, the power and uniqueness of their own voices, and to show them how to use those voices responsibly.
• Accountability. To become safer, more inclusive places to work and learn, schools must ensure that all people involved in schooling understand not just the importance of their individual rights, but also their civic responsibility to guard the rights of others—especially those with whom they most deeply disagree. In such a culture of civic accountability, how we debate, not just what we debate, becomes critical. And in an environment where everyone is afforded the same degree of respect, our most vulnerable children are less likely to feel isolated and invisible.
One of the great paradoxes of human beings is that we feel two pressing needs at the same time: for the freedom that comes from defining ourselves as individuals, and for the security that comes from feeling connected to one another. But these two impulses are not mutually exclusive. To join a community, we are not required to abandon the freedom to express our individuality. And to be free, we do not need to sacrifice the meaningful connections we make in our relationships with others.
This tension has important implications for schools, which often struggle to balance the need for individual freedom with the desire for a safe and orderly environment. But school leaders do not need to make this choice. Schools must be places that nurture our need for individual freedom as a means of forging stronger collective bonds, and environments that create unity in the interest of our diversity, instead of at the expense of it.
A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 2006 edition of Education Week as To Make Schools Safe, Make All Children Visible