Category Archives: In the News

Are big money experiments ruining our schools?

My thoughts on Robert Herbert’s October 6, 2014 essay:

The Plot Against Public Education: How millionaires and billionaires are ruining our schools.

What do the failed educational reform initiatives critiqued in this essay have in common?

  • A belief that the answers to the challenges we face were clear and simple.
  • They made promises to fix the ills of our schools.
  • That very large sums of money gave you the right to experiment.
  • Projects could proceed without much scrutiny or forethought.
  • Reformers could act with impunity and move on if things didn’t go well.
  • Our children and their education suffered.

Herbert first discusses the Small Schools Initiative.

From 2000 to 2009, well-intentioned Bill Gates underwrote the “notion that large public high schools should be broken up and new, smaller schools should be created.”

Two billion dollars and a host of disrupted schools and damaged students later, Gates concluded, “Simply breaking up existing schools into smaller units often did not generate the gains we were hoping for.”

Gates’ next idea was to define what makes an exemplary teacher and then set that as the standard for all schools. He dismissed the plan when he discovered, “Unfortunately,” he said, “it seems that the field doesn’t have a clear view on the characteristics of great teaching. Is it using one curriculum over another? Is it extra time after school? We don’t really know.”

Next he critiques the Charter School Movement:

Herbert says, “Charter schools were supposed to prove beyond a doubt that poverty didn’t matter, that all you had to do was free up schools from the rigidities of the traditional public system and the kids would flourish, no matter how poor they were or how chaotic their home environments.”

They didn’t. Academic success -test scores- in charter schools was on a par or worse than the public schools they replaced and the racial disparities they promised to reduce were instead heightened. He concludes, “Charters never came close to living up to the hype. After several years of experimentation and the expenditure of billions of dollars, charter schools and their teachers proved, on the whole, to be no more effective than traditional schools. In many cases, the charters produced worse outcomes.”

Herbert’s essay is scathing and unfortunately on point. Frustrated non-educators often think they have the magic solution to fixing schools. Nowhere is this more evident than the rapid growth of charter schools, which turned out to be loose cannons with little financial or academic accountability, rather than the meccas of exemplary practice and inclusiveness as touted. If there were simple answers to reducing dropout rates and consensus on what and how we should teach so all kids achieve at a high level, no matter their circumstances, and if we had an easy to apply formula for what makes “a good teacher,” and surefire ways to create efficient schools with respectful, caring cultures, we’d have glommed on to these solutions long ago. End of discussion.

But teaching and learning isn’t that prescriptive and schools are the most challenging of institutions to run and reform. They are people motivators and life changers., and everyone has a stake in their success. They are accountable for students’ success and this is dependent on the quality of life afforded the families and children we welcome into our classrooms, and the excellent leadership and tireless work of each adult in a child’s life. The reason why we don’t always have the answers is that the needs of our children and the context of the society they live in are not static; so nor are the strategies, resources, and skills critical to meet these needs.

I say all this as both a pragmatist and an eternal optimist when it comes to the tremendous power and inherent goodness of public schools. Great things are already happening and we surely can improve, but not by the temptation of a notion, the stroke of a brush, or the clinking of coins.

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Part Three: Say no to zero-tolerance, and yes to conflict resolution

If zero-tolerance is:

  • Ineffective (one-size fits all and does not teach better behavior)
  • Counterproductive (escalates the school suspension to drop out to prison pipeline)
  • Sometimes even foolish (suspending a first grader for hitting another student)

And since misbehavior and conflicts are:

  • An inevitable part of everyday life in schools, homes, and communities
  • No longer handled with automatic student suspensions and expulsions 

What can we do instead?

  • Teach positive social behavior at all developmental levels
  • Teach basic conflict resolution skills K-12
  • Provide students with constructive options to resolve conflicts before they turn into a crisis
  • Treat a crisis as an opportunity to learn

There is so much we can do if we intentionally weave these approaches into everyday school life. The school culture would be one of prevention based on care and respect, taking responsibility, learning appropriate behavior, and of intervention based on restoring damaged relationships.

What kind of problem behavior are we talking about?
We are concerned with all types of violence (physical force used to violate, damage, or abuse another, and abusive or unjust use of power)on the continuum from subtle/emotional to obvious/physical.

The Violence Continuum- where conflicts escalate from subtle to obvious:

SUBTLE__name-calling__excluding__teasing__embarrassing__taunting__hitting__stealing__ spreading rumors__ bullying__harassing__stalking__threatening with harm__ganging up on__punching__assaulting sexually__targeting for hate crimes__stabbing__shooting__killing__OBVIOUS

What kind of solutions are there?
Conflict resolution prevention and intervention strategies needed to prevent and address violence also fall on a continuum from pro-action/prevention to intervention/resolution.

The Conflict Resolution Continuum where school-wide practices range from prevention to intervention to crisis management:

PREVENTION__ nurturing a positive school climate of caring, respectful relationships where every student is my student__identifying common values and social norms__providing bullying-prevention training, policies, and procedures__compiling student generated behavior guidelines/rules/codes of conduct__teaching, practicing, modeling, applying principles of restorative justice and positive social and conflict resolution skills__using informal conflict resolution(What are you doing? What can you do instead?)__involving families to work with us as a team__developing individual problem-solving plans__counseling/adult mentoring__providing formal peer and adult mediation__assigning in-school suspension__suspending from school__using formal restorative justice programs__expelling from school____arresting__incarcerating__ CRISIS

When a situation escalates in seriousness, conflict mediation and restorative justice can break the cycle of punishment:

inappropriate behavior+punishment+more inappropriate behavior+harsher punishment=

destroyed relationships + damaged lives

Mediation allows each student in a conflict to peacefully work out a solution they can both live with. The impartial mediator-peer or adult-provides a safe and respectful setting where they can express their concerns and feelings, gain insight into how their behavior affects others, and talk to each other in a respectful way to come up with an agreement. Mediation helps students consider the perspectives of others and can prevent the escalation of a conflict. It helps restore broken relationships and to build new ones. Through the mediation process students learn that conflicts are normal, to take responsibility for their part in the conflict, to work together to solve the problem, and that they can peacefully settle conflicts with positive words and actions.

Restorative justice is an opportunity to change negative behavior by focusing on the harm done to the victim-person or community. Its goal is not to punish but to develop empathy and mend relationships. The offender is expected to make things right and to not repeat the behavior in the future. Rather than receiving external punishment handed out by an adult authority, the offender takes ownership of his actions and is actively involved with repairing the damage done. It is an educational approach that aims to teach responsibility, change attitudes, and replace destructive behavior with constructive choices. Formal restorative justice programs are appropriate for secondary students and we also practice restorative justice with young children when we ask them how they can fix the mess they made, including emotional hurt they may have caused others.

Through mediation and restorative justice processes, students learn how their actions are personal choices and that their choices have consequences on people and communities. They learn the invaluable quality of empathy and compassion and how to restore harmony.

Even with strong prevention efforts conflicts and violence of many forms and intensities will still arise. Mediation and restorative justice are not the answer for all offenses. Serious behavior that threatens someone’s physical safety and emotional well-being is still dealt with consistently, swiftly, and assertively. Yet we can address all those other negative behaviors on the middle and lower ends of the violence continuum in more constructive ways that teach, model, and expect better behavior.

 

Part 1: An end to zero-tolerance policies and the “school-to-prison pipeline”

A Return to Common Sense and Reason

The US Department of Education recently condemned zero-tolerance discipline policies in schools. Time and experience have proven zero-tolerance policies-where all degrees of discipline issues are treated in a rigid, cause-effect way-are ineffective at reducing violence and teaching our students a better way to live and treat others. With this shift in public policy, we are now ready to build a more humane and hopeful approach to school discipline and violence prevention, one where reasonable and consistent discipline policies and practices build relationships and a positive school climate, not destroy them.

Where did the idea of using zero-tolerance in our schools come from?

The zero-tolerance policies enacted in the 1990s were a well-intentioned response to a growing concern about the presence of illegal drugs, alcohol, and firearms on school campuses. The Gun Free Schools Act of 1994 implemented a nationwide law mandating a one-year expulsion for students who were proven to have brought a firearm or other weapon to school. Over time, some states and school districts expanded zero-tolerance policies to include a range of behaviors including illegal drugs, insubordination, and bullying and they became the disciplinary approach of choice from kindergarten to high school.

Unfortunately after all these years, researchers have found that such punitive threats do little to deter violent behavior and often exacerbate a problematic situation. Automatic rigid penalties such as suspensions and expulsions:

  • Prevent schools from considering context and individual circumstances.
  • Damage relationships and chip away at the climate of the school.
  • Are disproportionate to race and socio-economic status, and students with special educational needs. 
  • Encourage adults to give up on “problem” students.
  • Do nothing to encourage interventions that could help change students’ behavior, save them from dropping out of school, and keep them from continuing to act violently and winding up in jail.
  • Can look foolishly misguided as in the case of the suspension of a kindergarten child for bringing a weapon to school (a dinner knife), or a first grader for sexually harassing a classmate (kissing her during recess).

By ignoring context and circumstances, zero-tolerance policies had a disproportional and negative impact on African-American and Latino students and were often a path to more trouble and imprisonment. The policies disregarded the reality that a student’s life experiences and the type of community he lives in profoundly affect his understanding of what is and is not acceptable behavior. At times home and neighborhood give a context for behavior that would be out of line in a school and, in the same way, school approved behaviors might seem foreign and impractical given the home environment.

Children face an internal conflict in trying to live successfully in these two very different worlds. This results in the alienation of students raised in toxic environments and who find themselves in a school culture that contradicts their own norms. They get in trouble more easily and more often for using the survival skills they have adopted in response to a culture of violence where emotional and physical force is the everyday means of dealing with conflict. Their behavior is as much about self-preservation as it would be for a soldier in a war zone.

It bears reinforcing that when we consider circumstances it does not mean we accept inappropriate behavior: Violent and disruptive behavior are still serious and must be stopped. Standards for behavior are kept high, all misbehavior is consistently addressed, and the safety of students and staff remains the top priority. Yet we are mindful that every inappropriate behavior is not of the same seriousness and does not deserve the same response.

One-Size Discipline Does Not Fit All

The more alienated the student, the greater the feeling of powerlessness and the greater the effort needed to reach out to help him develop that critical missing connection to the school and to those in it. So, we can be more effective by being more thoughtful. In place of zero-tolerance policies we can use our broad understanding of violence as a continuum of behaviors- emotional and physical, subtle to obvious – to address violence in all its forms and to understand its patterns. Then we can intervene early. And when we do intervene we can be compassionate and fair in our expectations, and work with students to replace their learned violent behaviors with socially acceptable alternatives, each according to need. It’s both logical and natural to treat individuals in the way that is most effective for them, to meet them where they are in their development, to help them grow in self-discipline and self-control, and to learn constructive ways to get their needs met. We take this approach to skill building for academics, learning an instrument, in sports, etc, so why not for behavior? We consider context and understand each circumstance and that the child is still learning.

Inconsistent responses to acts of violence (a behavior is okay for one group of students but not for another, or the behavior is not always addressed) and “ zero tolerance” policies that react rigidly to categories of behavior cause students and families to regard school rules and staff with skepticism. They see school and the administrators and teachers as unresponsive and even discriminatory. They lose faith in the educational system, or see their preconceived opinions about the school reinforced. These missteps undermine our efforts to build the trust with children and their families needed to change inappropriate behavior.

And to what end? A comprehensive policy research report on the effect of zero tolerance policies and practices found “an almost complete lack of evidence that zero tolerance is among the strategies capable of accomplishing that objective (reducing violent and illegal behavior). Researcher Russell Skiba concluded, “One can only hope for the development and application of more effective, less intrusive alternatives for preserving the safety of our nation’s schools.”

A Better Way

School education lawyer Dean Pickett understood the concept of context when he called for a more reasonable approach, which involves “zero tolerance for behavior but not zero thinking.” The addition of thinking and using our judgment allows administrators and other school adults to consider context and circumstances, and intent and history of the student to decide the most fair and effective response.

These fair responses offered through caring, concerned relationships are what we owe our students and how we can best effect change in their attitudes and behavior. This is what I would want if I found myself in trouble.

 

 

 

HBO explores the Brandon McInerney-Larry King murder

The Renewed Interest

Lately, there has been a spike in the number of hits on my posts about the 2008 murder of Larry King by classmate Brandon McInerney. At first puzzled why there was this renewed interest, I learned about HBO’s recently aired documentary, “Valentine Road.” I then sat down to watch it – with some trepidation. I hoped HBO had done a professional job of presenting the facts and raising the many core issues of the case. They did. It was an accurate and non-sensationalized exploration of the circumstances of Larry’s murder and the legal and social aftermath. Through videos, interviews with those involved – family members, friends, teachers, lawyers – and using court and police records, we see the polarization in the community over who was to blame and the agony of how to impose punishment.

The Story

The two boys: Fifteen year-old Larry was openly gay and cross dressed, Brandon was straight. Larry was multi-racial, Brandon was white. Larry was small with a slight build, Brandon was tall and athletic. Larry lived in a group facility for abused children. Brandon lived with his father and grandfather while his mother was in rehab for her drug addiction.

The basic facts of the incident were straightforward and undisputed: On February 12, 2008, fourteen year old Brandon McInerney brought a loaded gun to E. O. Green Middle School in Oxnard, CA, got up from his seat in the computer lab, stood behind his classmate, Larry King, who was sitting at a computer, and shot him twice- point-blank-in the back of his head.  As Larry fell to the floor, Brandon dropped the gun and fled the school. Larry died two days later and Brandon was charged with first- and -second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, and a hate crime. The district attorney was trying him as an adult and a conviction of first-degree murder carried up to a life sentence with no parole.

The Court Case

The case finally came to trial three years later and after nine weeks it ended with a hung jury. The members of the jury had no doubt Brandon had premeditated and carried out Larry’s murder. Their issues were over the fairness of trying a just-turned 14-year-old as an adult and the perceived circumstances that “drove” Brandon to take such a violent and permanent solution to a problem.

The Mitigating Factors

The mitigating factors proposed by the attorneys revolved around Larry’s increased use of make-up and dressing in girls clothes, the unappreciated open crush he had on Brandon and their unpleasant interactions, the growing tensions between the two, the lack of teacher and administrative interventions in the obviously escalating conflict, accusations of bullying and harassment by both parties, and Brandon’s state of mind when he shot Larry. Other factors on the jury’s mind were: the family backgrounds of both boys, which included foster and institutional care, physical and emotional abuse, family violence and parental drug use; the easy availability of guns; and the role of a local hate group.

After the mistrial trial, Brandon was again charged as an adult for first degree murder. To avoid another exhausting, contentious trial, Brandon pleaded guilty to second degree murder and manslaughter and was sentenced to 21 years in prison. At the sentencing, conflicting Save Brandon and Justice for Larry buttons were pinned to the sea of onlookers.

The Legacy

What do you think? Would there have been a hung jury and so much public support for the killer if the circumstances were reversed and Brandon was the boy who was bi-racial and the boy who was gay/transgendered and dressed like a girl? Was Larry’s murder a hate crime? Should a 14-year-old who commits an adult level crime such as lying in wait to kill someone, be tried as a juvenile? How much weight should mitigating factors such as family life and bullying have in assessing blame and assigning consequences?

Watch “Valentine Road” on HBO GO, (Valentine Road Trailer), read my schoolclimate.com blog posts as I followed the case, read what others have written, look at the thought-provoking Valentine Road Discussion Guide, and most importantly, think about what we can do to avoid such a the tragedy in the future.

Bullying happens during the summer, too.

School’s out! Let the fun begin!

Not so fast.

Sure, summer vacation brings with it the promise of nice weather, more freedom to choose what to do, and participation in fun activities. And if your child was a target of bullying at school, she might be relieved to be out of that hostile environment for a few months.

Yet the sad reality is she isn’t safe from bullying when school is out. During the summer, young children and teens are often supervised less closely and for longer periods of time in new surroundings with unfamiliar children and adults. The expectations for behavior may not be clear and there are no established relationships to make the group a positive community. This mix of factors provides ample opportunity for bullies to choose targets and make their summer miserable.

Where does summer bullying happen?

  • At day camps
  • Sleep away camps
  • Community recreational and enrichment programs
  • Playgrounds
  • Neighborhoods
  • Shopping centers
  • Swimming pools
  • Sports programs
  • Childcare centers
  • Buses
  • And on the Internet

What can parents do?

There are some things parents can do to reduce the chance their children might be the target of mean, hurtful, abusive behavior.

  1. Only consider summer activities where the children are well-supervised by trained, caring adults and they value and create a respectful environment.
  2. Would an anime workshop be a better choice than soccer camp? Be considerate of your children’s likes and dislikes. Offer options and ask them what they would like to do. Avoid putting them into a situation where they have little interest and may perform poorly. This can set them up as a target for bullying from the more skilled children.  It is empowering to be with others who share their interests.
  3. If possible arrange for your children to attend summer programs with some of  their friends.
  4. Find out what the program or camp’s bullying prevention policy is and how they actively ensure a bullying-free experience for their campers. (See Bullying Prevention: Camps Take a Stand (Sample Parent Letter)
  5. Talk to the program director. Ask questions such as: What do you do to intentionally model and build a culture of acceptance and empathy; who can a child go to if there is a problem; may a child call home when he wants to;  and how are incidents handled and how are parents involved.
  6. If your child was victimized at school, talk to whomever will be working with him and explain the situation. Ask what they can do to help your child have a successful summer experience.
  7. Cyber-bullying is a problem during the school year and even more so when children have with hours of free time, often unsupervised. Add to this how social networking sites are unregulated and any damage done by a text or picture is immediate. Set ground rules for Internet use, discuss proper and safe use of social networking, and check in to see what they are doing.
  8. Talk to your children regularly about their day-to-day experiences in their summer program and be on the lookout for symptoms they are being bullied, such as the child has stomach aches or complains of not feeling well, or tells you he just doesn’t want to go to the program or camp anymore.
  9. Listen to your child and find out what is going on. Report any concerns you have to the camp counselors and program directors. Remember there is a difference between tattling and reporting a problem where someone is being hurt.

But, there is another place where children are bullied, one you might not have considered.

You might not have considered the possibility that your child is being bullied at home by a brother or sister. We are increasingly aware of the damage done by sibling bullying, especially since the recent publication of a report in the  Journal of Pediatrics on The Association of Sibling Aggression With Child and Adolescent Mental Health

If there is no parent available, who is watching your children during the summer?  Have you appointed an older child to be in charge of his siblings? How does he treat his charges?

Home should be a safe haven, where we are unconditionally loved and cared for. But it isn’t a safe haven if parents condone or passively allow their children to boss, wield power over, verbally abuse, and physically hurt each other. This kind of sibling violence in our homes is as harmful to a child’s well-being and feeling of security as the bullying that occurs on the school bus or in the cafeteria. In fact, some think it is more harmful.

Sibling bullying is not the same as everyday squabbles or disagreements that arise. A level of conflict is expected within families. It is natural and provides a chance to learn how to consider the needs of others and compromise to reach a solution. But sibling bullying is very different. It is when one – or more than one – sibling is always the aggressor and another is always the victim, and the abuse is repeated and deliberate. Such violence in what is supposed to be a loving relationship leaves the child confused, feeling powerless and unworthy, even unlovable, and models an unhealthy view of what a loving relationship of mutual respect and concern looks like. And most striking is the puzzling reality that what would never be accepted between peers in a school is accepted as a normal part of life when it happens at home between siblings.

Why is this the case? In the  Journal of Pediatrics report, Corinna Jenkins Tucker, the lead author of the paper and an associate professor of family studies at the University of New Hampshire, sums up the problem: “Historically, sibling aggression has been unrecognized, or often minimized or dismissed, and in some cases people believe it’s benign or even good for learning about conflict in other relationships.”

Preventing and Intervening

Bullying is never healthy. There are many things parents can do to prevent bullying behavior between their children and to intervene if it already exists.  The first hurdle, is for parents to admit sibling bullying is not okay, and to then take an honest look at the relationships and behavioral patterns among their children. To set the expectations and a cooperative tone, bring everyone together for a thoughtful, respectful conversation about what is and is not acceptable in their house. Ask the children to name okay and not okay behavior. Write down their ideas and make an agreement to follow these guidelines. Follow through and be consistent in your expectations.

A child who is bullying a sibling needs to be held accountable, just as she would be if she bullied someone in school. A parent must tell her to stop the violent behavior, immediately, and tell the victim that being bullied is not her fault. At this time it is also wise to talk to the child you have placed in charge of her siblings about how she feels about the responsibility she was given, and re-examine and, if possible, adjust the arrangement you have made for child care.

With an open dialogue, and clear expectations and sensitivity to all the parties, you have a good chance of removing home from the list of places where children get bullied during the summer.

Check out:

Summer Bullying Prevention Tips For Your Family

Parents: Don’t ignore sibling bullying, study warns

Bullying Prevention: Camps Take a Stand (Sample Parent Letter)

Association of Sibling Aggression With Child and Adolescent Mental Health

Pepsi commercial models bullying

You might have seen this. Millions have.

A man shows up to a car dealership and eyes a hot sports car. The salesman engages him in conversation and offers to put him behind the wheel to try it out. The buyer, a middle-aged, timid mini-van driver, says the Camaro would be too much car for him. He didn’t know if he could handle it. The salesman reassures him it is safe so, after he signs all the necessary papers, they go for a test drive.

Then all hell breaks loose. He drives like a maniac, speeding recklessly and doing stunts that would give anyone a heart attack. The panicked salesman looks afraid for his life. He tells the driver to slow down, to stop the car before he wrecks it, that he’s going to kill him, and when they finally screech into the car lot, the traumatized salesman bolts from the car to call the police.

But, wait the driver tells him. It’s not what you think it is. It’s a prank. We were just having some fun.

The joke is on him.

The “test driver” is actually Jeff Gordon, a professional NASCAR/Stock car driver, in disguise. Pepsi sent Jeff to a Chevy dealership to get him behind the wheel of a Camaro, to “scare the bejesus out of the salesman riding shotgun.” http://www.sportsgrid.com/nascar/jeff-gordon-pepsi/)

The Pepsi Max commercial immediately went viral on YouTube with 31 million views in one week and, as of March 22, it became the 14th most viewed ad of all time. The Internet is abuzz. (http://www.unrulymedia.com/article/22-03-2013/new-test-drive-ad-puts-fizz-back-pepsi)

The accolades pour in:

  • It’s genius.
  • The funniest video in years!
  • The car salesman’s reaction is hilarious.
  • That guy definitely got poned. (according to Internetslang.come poned is an acronym for “Powerfully owned, dominated”)

A controversy surfaces:

  • The ad world and many YouTube viewers say it’s all a fake.
  • That it was staged with actors and done with multiple takes.
  • A stunt driver stood in for Gordon.
  • Maybe Pepsi shouldn’t fake out consumers like that.

Some mixed feelings are voiced:

  • While it is definitely mean, it is funny.
  • This is cruel but also enjoyable and funny.
  • A sort of mean but incredibly funny prank by Pepsi and Jeff Gordon
  • It was funny as can be, but my heart still went out to the poor guy.

The real message is missed.

The upsetting issue is the negative message the prank sends: If something is funny, it excuses cruel, dominating, demeaning bullying behavior.

My first reactions to the video, like the woman whose heart went out to the poor guy, were shock and empathy for the salesman. I felt so bad for him, not only because he was scared, but also because his suffering was a joke played on him and shared with the world. Staged or not, what it showed, under the guise of humor, was outright mean and callous. This is the opposite of what we are trying to teach our children about how to treat each other; that they should go beyond the traditional Golden Rule to the Golden Rule of Empathy that teaches us to treat others as they want to be treated, with the understanding that everyone has basic unalienable rights that must be respected.

It all hinges on empathy.

The foundation of non-violence and respect for others is our ability to put ourselves in their shoes, to see things from their perspective, to feel this empathy for them, and then to act with compassion. Empathy allows us to evaluate what we see happening, make informed decisions, and choose our actions wisely. It leads to respectful and compassionate conduct toward others, something this Pepsi commercial, entertaining or not, does not model.

Bullying take s a village of bystanders.

I wish more people had spoken up about how cruel a practical joke the commercial was and were less concerned about whether  it was real or a fake, or if it was a good marketing tool to sell more Pepsi Max. The popularity of this ad illustrates the role of bystander in bullying, the audience that lets the bullying continue.

Say No to Armed Guards in Schools

A confusion of issues and solutions

We are back to school after the terrible tragedy of December 14th and the long holiday vacation. It was a juxtaposition of realities for families and school staff. And then the tragedy was high jacked by the gun industry, propelling us into a national discussion about arming school personnel to protect students and staff from a future violent rampage.

It is natural for caring people to want to do something, to take concrete action to prevent any more deaths of innocent school children and adults. We feel helpless otherwise. Every school district and building is likely reviewing its crisis prevention and emergency response plans, wondering how it would have handled the situation, making improvements, and holding practice drills. We are skittish.

But the discussion has gone askew. Putting guns in schools for protection is a dangerous diversion from the issues, a misguided over reaction that makes schools less safe. It is heartening to see the growing push back against this proposed solution.

Violence in Perspective

What we really need to do is to put what happened at Sandy Hook in perspective. Mass murder, or any murder, is still extremely rare at a school. It is horrible, but rare. And what happened at Sandy Hook is even more rare, as it does not fit the typical profile for the kind of deadly violence of a Columbine, Jonesboro, or West Paducah . This time the killer was not a disenfranchised, troubled, bullied male student from that school, hell-bent on notoriety or revenge. The Sandy Hook killer was an outsider, a troubled adult with a not yet revealed motive for choosing this elementary school to act out his mental breakdown.

But, yes! There is violence in schools and it spans the violence continuum from subtle to overt, from emotional to physical. The profile of school violence looks like this:

Common, every day – taunting, teasing, excluding, bullying, shoving, threatening, harassing, hazing…among students.

Rare: Incidents of killing of students and staff by a student in that school.

Extremely rare: Incidents of killing of students and staff by an outside intruder.

The real issues

It is clear that deadly gun violence by a student or an outsider are a distant second and third behind the typical more subtle violence our students have to deal with in schools daily, and that they are very different issues. What happened at Sandy Hook is not a school issue; it is a cultural, societal, and legal issue.

Suggesting that the routine use of armed guards or armed staff at all schools is the answer to school violence is irrational. It intentionally clouds the broader issues of a culture that uses violence to settle problems and to dominate others, the control of access to assault and other weapons, and the insufficient availability of mental health services for those in need and their families. These are the issues Sandy Hooks begs us to face head on if we truly want to keep our children and ourselves safe from random mass-shootings, because they can and do happen anywhere – at the mall, on our streets, in a movie theater, in a fast food restaurant, at an office building, and in our homes. The answer is not to station armed guards where ever people gather.

We can do some concrete things to make our schools safe

  • Have a written school safety plan that includes prevention and crisis response that meets our specific needs. From what we know, the principal and staff had done this due diligence to protect the members of their school. They developed a thorough crisis prevention/intervention plan that included controlled, limited access to the school, a plan for lock down and sheltering in place in an emergency, and a plan for sheltering off site in the event of an evacuation; and they practiced the drill with their students and staff. Add to this the valor of the adults and cooperation of the children, and they can rest assured they had taken school safety seriously. An armed guard or a principal with a gun would likely not have stopped someone with a semi-automatic weapon that planned to break into a school to shoot people.
  • Review and address the safety needs of our particular school. Many schools, usually secondary schools, in high-risk areas or with a high incidence of verbal and physical threats, poor administrative leadership, assaults, gang activity, non-compliance with the staff and school code of conduct, etc. have responded to their specific needs with security measures such as campus guards, controlled entry, and metal detectors, no backpacks, and swift and consistent response to violent threats or acts. These precautions are proper in these situations, but not for all schools.
  • Continue to intentionally make our school a violence-free zone for every student and adult. Assess and address the kinds of subtle, hurtful violence students face every day. Be observant, listen to students, and report and deal with problems as they arise. We aren’t helpless. This is what we can do to make schools safer and more secure for our children.

For information on the violence continuum and how to use it to identify the needs in your school, please see my book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate.

Helping our children cope with this tragedy

Rocked to the core

Today’s mass killing of innocent young children and adults in the Sandy Hook Elementary School has rocked us to our core. On the “violence continuum” this is off the chart, an extraordinary, unthinkable act by a disturbed individual. It shatters our belief of school as a safe haven– a place where we can just be that we count on as being safe. I was an elementary principal and can only imagine the horror of the scene.

As we adults grieve and process what happened and seek information and motive, we need to keep in mind that our own children still count on us to protect and care for them emotionally and psychologically. This means acting as responsible adults who make their needs the priority.

Not all children will hear about the shooting, nor do they need to, especially young children, and we should avoid burdening them unnecessarily. If they are older, directly affected, or do ask questions, we can respond in a way that reduces anxiety and builds their sense of security. While devastating, we need to remember that school shootings and other fatal acts are still very rare, and that less than 2% of youth murders occur in school. This statistic does not make what happened easier to accept, but it does put it in perspective as we and our children cope.

What do we say?

If your children do ask questions about the tragedy or are exposed to media coverage, we can mitigate the negative effect…

  • First, sit down together.
  • Turn off the TV, computers, and cell phones.
  • Then reassure them, and yourselves, that they are safe, that school shootings are extremely rare.
  • Listen to their concerns.
  • Answer questions rationally and calmly, according to the child’s developmental level.
  • Give only the information asked for; grizzly details are harmful and produce more anxiety.
  • Keep the TV off while your children are around.
  • Create normalcy by doing your usual routines.
  • Love and be there for them.

And then we can search our souls for what we can and need to do to help our country heal and become a less violent place.

Ban assault rifles in our society; teach non-violence in our homes and schools.

It has been a while since I’ve posted a new blog. Everyday life happens, and sometimes what you think will be a simple, straightforward topic turns into a research project. (Look for a future post on the unhealthy art of sarcasm.)

But nothing gets everyone’s attention like a mass shooting of innocent people going about their everyday lives. The people of Colorado and the rest of the world are trying to wrap their heads around the mental and physical effort that went into a systematically, finely-calculated plan to kill people as they watched a movie.

On the “violence continuum” this is off the chart, an extraordinary, disturbing act by one individual. It shatters our sense of the safe haven– places where we can just be that we count on as being secure. Incidents of mass gun violence re-energize heated arguments about access to guns, a critical constitutional issue over which Americans constantly wrestle, often to little avail. But below is link that gives everyone a chance to come together and take positive action. No matter where we stand on Second Amendment rights, we should all be able to agree there is no place in our society for machines designed for no other purpose than to massacre. And while we work jointly to ban these assault weapons, we can work on fixing our culture of violence.

Fixing our culture of violence-one that is pervasive, not extraordinary – especially as we try to teach our children to choose peaceful ways of living, is lost in the blurring immediacy of a deadly tragedy. We call the incident senseless, but is it any more senseless than a child being taunted for the way she looks, or being excluded from the group because she is poor or has special learning needs, or being harassed and assaulted for being gay? From one end of the violence continuum to the other, it is all senseless, and physically and emotionally scarring. This everyday violence is where we need to focus. We have remarkable control over our homes and schools. We create the climate and culture that define what is right and wrong. We can make sure these are safe havens where adults model and children practice peaceful, respectful, and compassionate ways to treat each other.

Sure, make a commitment to ban assault rifles in our society, but also make a commitment to consistently model, teach, and expect non-violence in our schools and homes.

“President Obama and Governor Romney: Issue a joint call asking Congress to reinstate the expired federal assault weapons ban now.”

and also

“Stop Bullying!”

Hitting students? Legally? Really?

Many schools across America control their students through fear and physical violence. And they do it legally. Whether your child can be paddled in public school as a form of punishment depends on where you live.

Most states ban the use of corporal punishment in U.S. juvenile correction facilities and in the prison system.  Yet nineteen states still allow the use of corporal punishment by school adults against students who misbehave, break a rule, have a bad attitude, perform poorly in schoolwork, or do something that annoys them. It is even harder to understand the thinking behind this when we discover that ten of these nineteen states that allow students to be disciplined physically, paradoxically prohibit corporal punishment in their penal systems! How can this be so? They do this with the blessing of the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1977,  ruled that the Eighth Amendment of the Bill of Rights only protects convicted criminals from cruel and unusual punishment, not students confined to a classroom. (State-by-state analysis of the legality of corporal punishment in the US)

Not unlike prisoners, students are a confined audience at the mercy of those in power. They are vulnerable to whatever their classmates and adults dish at them. Thankfully there is a growing awareness of the frequency and harm of bullying and harassment, especially of certain groups of students. In recent years, many states and school districts have enacted laws and implemented policies that prohibit such abuse. We acknowledge that we owe our students a school climate that is safe and nurturing.

Much of a teacher’s influence on her students comes from modeling, often unintentionally, and we ask teachers and principals to intentionally model what they expect from their students. In addition to the moral and ethical questions of adults hurting children, paddling is not compatible with the understanding of how children learn. Corporal punishment does not model positive social skills, is not a deterrent, does not teach better behavior, and it does not improve academic performance. Paddling teaches our children that adults have the authority, power, and right to abuse them, emotionally and physically, when they are frustrated, angry, or believe we ought not spare the rod. It erodes students’ respect for adults and their belief in non-violent ways to solve problems, and fans disenfranchisement and rebellion. And disturbing is the knowledge that it is administered disproportionately toward the most vulnerable of our children. The US Office of Civil Rights reports that students with disabilities and African American children are paddled at twice the rate of the general school population. The poor, disabled, and racial and ethnic minorities are the overwhelming targets of this sanctioned school violence.

School violence of any kind sickens the climate and has a negative effect on students’ attitudes toward themselves and others, and their academic success. When adults inflict the violence it is an even more egregious abuse of physical and positional power.  So how can we justify sitting by while adults discipline students by hitting them?

We can’t.

As we outlaw bullying in schools, we have a chance to extend these protections even further, to all children on a national level.  The hope lies in our vigilance and support of the “Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act,” HR 3027 introduced in Congress on Sept 22, 2011 by NY Rep Carolyn McCarthy.

Learn more about the topic and how you can help eliminate corporal punishment in America’s schools.

Huffington Post blog post “Corporal Punishment in American Schools — Teaching Through Terror?”