School Climate & Safety

Violence, School Climate, and “Normal” (Part II)

By Amy Wickner — January 03, 2014 3 min read
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In my last post, I reviewed Reclaiming School in the Aftermath of Trauma: Advice Based on Experience, edited by Carolyn Lunsford Mears (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). In that book, educators with first-hand knowledge of trauma in schools, described how school communities might cope with events that seem out of the blue. Mears wrote in her introduction: “I hope you never need the information in this book.”

However, in another recent book, Leadership, Violence, and School Climate: Case Studies in Creating Non-Violent Schools (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), Kyle Blanchfield and Peter D. Ladd argue that understanding and preparing for school violence and trauma is essential, not optional, for educators:

The recent reports of school shootings, bullying, and other forms of lateral violence in schools has created a mind-set where dealing with trauma may be a part of any school leader's job description.

Another key difference between the two books is that, while Mears and her contributors look backward at the roots of school-based trauma and forward to recovery, Blanchfield and Ladd urge school leaders to lay the foundations, now, for responding to possible traumatic events or behaviors in the future. This kind of preparatory work, they argue, may also help prevent such incidents from ever occurring.

Building a nonviolent school culture through democratic leadership — characterized by collaboratively developed shared vision and values is the directive with which they charge readers. Many of the contributors to Reclaiming School would agree that shared values help make schools resilient, although they are not guaranteed to completely shield anyone from the effects of trauma.

Leadership, Violence, and School Climate is divided into three parts: Intervention, Prevention, and Programs. In Part I: Intervention, the authors describe three broad categories of school-based situations or factors that require responsive intervention by school leaders — crisis, trauma, and emotions — as well as principles of democratic school leadership for nonviolence — empowerment, assertiveness, common ground, humor, critical thinking, generosity, and trust. Each chapter examines a principle in detail and includes school-based case studies. The overall effect is a kind of typology of the elements of school climate and how effective leaders behave under various circumstances.

The book’s final chapter describes exemplary programs — such as the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center, a program of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of safe and healthy students — that match the authors’ criteria for supporting nonviolence in schools. REMS TA, as that program is known, works with a variety of school districts to train teachers, administrators, and other staff.

This and other recommended programs reflect the authors’ assertion that, “For today’s schools, violence becomes a larger social problem that goes beyond education and includes public safety, community resources, criminal justice, and the family.”

Blanchfield and Ladd recognize that nonviolent, democratic school cultures may be hard to achieve, particularly for educators working without outside assistance. Indeed, the authors do not claim that it is possible to eradicate violence from schools.

From the beginning, they write, "[democratic leadership] also requires a shift in thinking that may improve the chances for having a nonviolent school.” Similarly, Alan Kirk and Steve King, writing in Reclaiming Schools, reframe a school’s return to “normal” as a “struggle to achieve equilibrium,” a more realistic and flexible expectation than the complete restoration of pre trauma conditions. Blanchfield and Ladd propose ways in which school leaders may seek to establish a nonviolent “normal” that both discourages violence and eases recovery should it occur.

For more on school violence and climate:

• Books on School Shootings Offer Advice, Warnings Titles selected by Education Week editors include analysis of what causes school violence, and ways to respond. Mears' book was briefly mentioned in this December 2012 BookMarks post. • The Newtown School Shootings Education Week's complete coverage, including news articles, blog posts, and Commentaries. • Safety and Violence and School Climate, Health, and Student Life Topic pages at present news articles, Commentaries, event listings, and other Education Week resources on issues related to school safety and climate.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.