This year’s 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting, in which 12 students and one teacher were tragically killed, was a somber reminder of how deeply the fear of mass violence has penetrated the fabric of our nation’s school systems. High-profile incidents—in our civic offices, churches, workplaces, music venues, schools, festivals—continue to make safety a front-of-mind issue not just for students and their families, but also for classroom teachers, school staff, and school and district leaders. Their job requirements now include preparing for and responding to school violence—or trying to prevent it from happening in the first place.
When school shooting incidents have occurred in the past, in my role as dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Education, I’ve been asked by reporters what we were doing to solve the problem. Frankly, I haven’t felt satisfied with what I had to say or what we could contribute. The jobs of teachers and principals are different today than decades ago, but our nation’s teacher- and administrator-preparation programs haven’t evolved to ensure that the next generation of educators are prepared to tackle today’s complex challenges. I am convinced that if higher education institutions—especially research-oriented schools of education like ours—want to remain relevant to the K-12 profession, then we must adapt to the changing needs of our K-12 schools and better prepare the professionals who lead them.
Creating safe and healthy learning environments is one of the many multidimensional, interconnected challenges that today’s educators and schools must face. Many schools have gravitated toward measures of questionable effectiveness, including arming teachers, hardening school buildings, purchasing biometric scanners, and updating emergency protocols. But in our conversations with district and school leaders, they frequently ask us specific questions that go beyond school violence and security and reflect more closely their day-to-day reality: How do we roll out an effective safety plan? How can we promote the mental health of our students and staff? How can we address issues like bullying, suicide, discipline, and school climate?
We should have concrete answers for them. We as an institution have a long legacy of transforming the practice of medicine through rigorous application of evidence, an on-the-ground presence in Baltimore schools grappling with some of these issues, and numerous researchers who study different pieces of the school health and safety puzzle. Yet our research efforts on this issue lacked coordination and a common focus, and we had few courses and practical resources to offer our students or educators currently in the profession. So, more than a year ago, we began methodical preparations to launch a new cross-disciplinary center at the university, with our school of education leading the way.
We began by broadly examining how school safety was being addressed across the country and found many different groups offering different solutions—some good, but many lacking any kind of evidence base. We found other institutions of higher education and organizations making important contributions on certain facets of the issue. But no research university had pulled the many pieces of school safety and health together in a multidisciplinary effort—from education to public health to applied physics—dedicated to tackling this challenge comprehensively and holistically.
We’re hoping to do just that with our new Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, which we launched this spring. We want to provide schools, communities, and policymakers with knowledge and tools to make informed decisions, and to provide educators and families with the best practices to foster a safe and healthy school climate. This means revamping our own teacher- and administrator-preparation curriculum to include the best research and practice in safe and healthy schools as an integral part of training 21st century educators. We are still very much in the early going—pioneering different tools and ideas, planning to measure the evidence of our impact, and striving to learn all we can from our successes and failures.
We hope that our experience will propel other schools of education to rethink how they can best prepare teachers and administrators. School health and safety is just one area where schools of education can prove our critics wrong by demonstrating we have much to contribute to solving the greatest problems of our day. Collectively, we have many tools in our 21st century arsenal, among them data analysis, learning science, entrepreneurial savvy, and innovative research that transcends disciplinary boundaries. But perhaps our most effective tool can be a passionate commitment to the evidence-based improvement of our schools and our children’s future.
Plenty of other new and evolving challenges face K-12 educators and schools, and I hope our colleagues will launch similar initiatives where they have expertise by identifying, connecting, and adapting all of the levers at their disposal, whether they be research, academics, tools, or training. I also anticipate foundations and individual philanthropists will fund more focused and holistic initiatives that are led by schools of education and designed to help solve the most pressing problems in their local communities and nationwide.
A version of this article appeared in the August 21, 2019 edition of Education Week as A Beacon for Confronting Mass Violence