School Climate & Safety Opinion

What School Leaders Know That Donald Trump Doesn’t

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 15, 2016 5 min read
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What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists, is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents. - Robert F. Kennedy

We write this blog on the morning when Donald Trump may have secured his place as the Republican presidential nominee. Whether or not this happens, he has shaped and/or revealed a part of American society that we thought had been laid to rest in our lifetime. But, no, with his invitation, bullying behaviors and intolerance and hatred rises again.

The genesis of the ruckus that broke out at the Trump rally in Chicago and the ardor that continues to follow him, highlights a danger school leaders and law enforcement know about very well. Trump continues to deny responsibility, or honestly fails to understand his responsibility, for the surging hateful language and actions that continue to build in his wake. Historian Douglas Brinkley, recently on CNN, referred to Trump as a ‘fear monger’. He appears to be releasing the fears of the public who are searching for someone to blame...someone unlike themselves. We write, not to support or oppose a candidate, but to highlight the aspects of Trump’s words and actions that we believe are dangerous, and to recognize the wisdom of school leaders and law enforcement, overall.

Models of Morality, Civility, and Compassion
We make two observations. The first has to do with the leader’s role and responsibility be knowledgeable and to model and encourage moral, compassionate, empathetic behavior. Yet, we carry sad awareness that not all see those adjectives as associated with leadership. Some would replace them with strong, decisive, and swift. Leaders, in taking on the role, no longer can safely enjoy the freedom one to express themselves without concern for the possible effects of their words on the people who hear them. This private luxury evaporates when one enters the public leadership arena. Although a compassionate person would always be concerned about their words and the effects, intended and not, on the listeners.

Leaders, all, enjoy the right of free speech, but leaders hold a higher responsibility for the impact their words might hold. The size of their audience, which is larger than the audience in private environs, raises the stakes and can spin out of hand easily. We think Trump either is skillfully misusing his voice to create this elevated level of violent opposition and encouraging the chaos for his own promotional reasons, or, he simply is totally unaware of the public leadership responsibility to exercise freedom of speech within the most powerful position in the world.

When school leaders stand before their faculties, boards, and communities there is a choice to be made not only about the message, and how the message is to be delivered, but of the consequences of the message, intended and unintended, on recipients. Schools that flourish are those connected with their communities; connected by common values, respect, and trust rooted in a principled leader. What if school leaders who felt strongly against the common-core or a new accountability system, or new or more standardized tests stood in front of the community and proclaimed they were so angry at the requirements that they could just “punch somebody in the face.” Or what if they said, in a public meeting that those in the community who did not vote for a recent proposition to build a new high school, “They shouldn’t be allowed to live in our community. Get ‘em out.” Can you imagine? It is certain that you are shaking you head and thinking ‘I would NEVER do that’. That is exactly our point.

Leaders choose to stand in their leadership shoes and protect the community from the potential of rising ire when things are not going smoothly. We want to recognize school leaders, for their choice to lead respectful discourse even in difficult times and with wide differences of opinions about important issues involving children and money...two the things Americans care about intensely.

Preventing Threats to Safety
The other observation is about something that few other than law enforcement and school leaders can know. What doesn’t happen is difficult to praise, because it didn’t happen. The nature of the attitudes with which the officers interacted with the crowd in Chicago, and the peaceful stance those mounted officers took as they sat high on horses, decelerated the crowd’s rising shouts and prevented a melee. One can argue that it was the crowd’s choice not to become violent, that it was never going to happen. But, school leaders know only too well, one person can trigger another so easily. Those intervening to defuse can inflame or skillfully calm a situation. That behavior plays as much of a role as the original participants in determining how an event ends.

In service to the responsibility that nothing physical, life threatening or property damaging will happen, schools plan for and enforce safe practices that secure the school and the people within it. Safety is inherent in our contract with the public. For some, it may involve metal detectors. For others, it may involve teachers and administrators in the hallway every morning to greet each child as they enter to begin their day. And, it may involve cultivating relationships with local agencies, including the police, and social services. It may involve keeping open dialogue with those with whom one personally disagrees vehemently. Paramount to the success of establishing safe environments is the leading of a culture of respect, civility, and providing opportunity for all voices to be heard.

Those living long enough have seen revolutions of all kinds: peaceful ones and violent ones. We have experienced those who lead with integrity and compassion, and we have experienced those led by drawing lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’, replete with an ‘enemies list’. We have experienced those who work to avoid inciting the crowd, and those who think inciting the crowd is useful. The choice lies within the hearts and minds of those holding positions of power. And, it speaks to who they are and who they perceive themselves to be serving. It reveals the values that guide them. We salute the school leaders and those in law enforcement who take that responsibility seriously. The results can be seen in the peaceful results. Invisible is what didn’t happen. We know the other way things can play out and, for sure, we know leaders are part of the process where violence is not. It isn’t a sign of weakness to keep differences coexisting peacefully, is it?

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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.