School Climate & Safety Opinion

When Nothing Happens

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 21, 2014 5 min read
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The community of Roswell, New Mexico suffered a school shooting on January 14th. A 12 year old with a sawed off shotgun carried in a musical instrument case shot two other students who had gathered in the gym because of cold conditions outside. He had three shells for the gun and used them all. The victims were rushed to a medical center in Texas for treatment. We hold those children and their families in our hearts. The shooter was taken into custody and is charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. The lives of three students are forever changed and many others are left confronting, newly, the impact of violence in America.

According to reports, a teacher persuaded the boy to put the gun down. There is no way of knowing whether the shooter responded to the teacher because he was only 12 years old and out of ammunition, or if the difference in the weapon controlled the size of the tragedy, or if the boy with the gun was not as emotionally distraught as other school shooters have been. We do not yet know whether the “active shooter” training received by the staff had prepared them for this moment. What we do know is that a teacher stepped forward toward the shooter. It was an admirable act of bravery by 8th grade social studies teacher John Masterson. With the Governor on site and parents and children uncertain, the school reopened on January 16th . Superintendent Burris encouraged the teachers to wear the “face of courage, the face of love and the face of the positive” as the children returned.

Each day between Pearl Harbor and September 11, 2001 were days we were safe in this country...almost invulnerable, actually. But we can never know if it was luck, circumstance, or the result of the intelligence work of our government working to intercept information that preempted any attack from happening. The threats to our safety are greater, the technology to reach us more advanced, the attempts at harming us both organized and rogue are real. Every day we are safe, we don’t know if it is luck, or good work of those working to keep us safe. Some of us remember hiding under desks during air raid drills in the 1950’s when we feared the Russians were coming. Now the feared attacker comes from next door or down the street. What a difference that makes.

Schools and the adults working in them have worked diligently since Columbine to establish routines and procedures in order to respond to threats and dangers that are today’s challenges. Even the response teams have improved their protocols and had specific training for school shootings. Each tragedy has informed the attention to detail and improved routines. Superintendent Burris had said there was “no cowardice” on Tuesday. Well, we are unaware that cowardice has played a part in any of the tragedies. In fact, it is because of those previous tragedies, the training developed and delivered since and the safety measures taken by schools that, hopefully, we are all more prepared.

What we don’t really know is if we are safe. When incidents occur, it is routine for us to question our safety plans, how well everyone knows the contents, and how well they are being followed. Each time something like this happens in our schools, it brings us back to an alert concern that invites us to revisit plans, routines, and explore the what if’s.

Another action we might benefit from while working on what we should do, is recognizing what we are doing. We need to try to bring forward the invisible results of everyone’s hard work and celebrate it. How do we know that something not happening is just luck? Instead, let’s reexamine the alertness, the advance warning attention for students in crisis and interventions that are proactive and preventative. Every incident that does not escalate should be acknowledged and every child whose pain is mitigated helps us all.

For decades, teachers have been taking students on trips, some even overnight trips, that end with students returning home safely. In crowded lunchrooms, students get their lunches, sit down and socialize. In some cafeterias, the ratio of students to adults appears to be alarming high, and still most lunchtimes remain peaceful (albeit loud to an adult’s ears). Physical education classes, locker rooms, hallways, riding the bus... every time nothing happens there is good work going on. We celebrate good grades and team wins. Have we made it clear that we are celebrating students who studied and practiced well and those who reported concerns or stopped a verbal assault? Are we celebrating the process or the product?

When we say “nothing happened” we miss an opportunity to acknowledge the effort of everyone in the community. Some might ask why acknowledge it if it is expected behavior. That is a fair question. We take for granted what is expected. But in schools, reinforcing positive behaviors creates and supports both learning and an inclusive culture. Acknowledging a drill was successful acknowledges the product. But what we mean, and need to teach and reinforce is the work that went into that success. Why protocols are put into place, why each successful step in completing a drill depends on the compliance of the participants, needs to be reinforced and celebrated. The reason for the process may have dissolved into a routine. When students, faculties, and staff follow the rules correctly, they are giving us the information we need to be confident that, in a real disaster, we have a way to keep them safe. That safety requires everyone’s cooperation and training. Each time students and teachers demonstrate their efforts to be safe, even in drills, we should remind them that it was with their effort that this went well.

An appreciation of “nothing happened” can be turned into recognition of what did happen; a day, a trip, a game, a meeting with all in attendance, all grades entered on time, a drill without incident means everyone attended to the responsibility they have been given. We do have much to be thankful for and often what we have to be thankful for is invisible. Gratitude is a mental practice. Reinforcement and encouragement through recognition won’t go unnoticed. We all need it. And it will go a long way toward educating students, faculty, and staff and reinforcing the behaviors we need to keep moving forward, safely.

Note: Since the writing of this post a school shooting took place in Philadelphia. Two students were wounded. It has been reported they have non-life threatening injuries.

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