Making Schools Safer in the Wake of Sandy Hook

As policymakers prepare to find the best way to respond to the tragedy in Newtown, educators and parents across the country are left to wonder – what can we do to make our schools safe?

The lessons of Sandy Hook Elementary School can help us answer that question in two ways – one that is uncomfortable, and one that is essential.

The uncomfortable truth of Sandy Hook is that there is nothing we can do to guarantee that our children are safe. Short of placing an iron dome over our school buildings or turning them into police bunkers, the only thing we can do is create spaces for children that are as safe and supportive as possible.  And so while it is encouraging that national policymakers are intent on addressing the larger aspects of American culture that make acts of mass violence like this all too common, the only things individual schools and communities can do are the sorts of things Sandy Hook had already done: establish clear safety protocols, lock their doors once the school day begins, and be vigilant in their efforts to keep children safe.

There is, however, something essential our schools can do to ensure that all children feel safe and supported, and it, too, is something the educators of Sandy Hook were already doing: proactively addressing the full range of each child’s developmental needs, and providing students with the love and support they need to learn and grow.

It was happening the morning of the tragedy: principal Dawn Hochsprung and psychologist Mary Sherlach were in a meeting with the parent of a child who was struggling, and together they were working out a plan to ensure that his needs could be addressed to help get him back on track.

This is becoming a lost art, and a lost practice – most schools, if they have a team of mental health professionals at all, maintain skeleton crews whose daily efforts cannot possibly account for the needs of all the children in their charge. This is especially true in our poorest communities, where budget cuts and conflicting priorities have forced educators to cut back on counselors, social workers, and psychologists.

In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, this cannot continue.

It’s impossible to know if a more robust set of supports could have helped Adam Lanza before he decided to commit mass murder. But it’s undeniable that a more robust set of supports would help current and future generations of students get the help they need, and keep them on track to live happy, productive lives.

For proof, just look to the schools and networks that already operate this way. Consider the School Development Program (SDP), a national network of K-12 schools structured to ensure that every adult – from the teachers to the bus drivers to the custodial staff – is well-versed in the six developmental pathways children must travel down: cognitive, social, emotional, linguistic, ethical, and physical. Or visit any of the more than 200 affiliates of Communities in Schools (CIS), a nationwide network of professionals who work collaboratively to surround students with a range of academic and behavioral support services.

What programs like SDP and CIS recognize is a simple fact about children: unmet social and emotional needs become unmet academic needs. And they recognize what Yale University’s James Comer – the founder of SDP – has observed: “With every interaction in a school, we are either building community or destroying it.”

So let’s keep encouraging our elected officials to push for lasting changes in the way our society is structured. And let’s recognize that in the meantime, and from this day forward, each of us has a vital role to play.

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

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3 Comments

  1. Posted December 19, 2012 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this. As the superintendent of a small rural district, your words and thoughts echo the discussions we have been having this week.
    Our schools are on break until 1/7 when teachers return for a staff development day. I want to share this with all of them and with our parent groups and Board. This connects with our work around Search Institute’s Developmental Assets!
    Thank you. (I hope this video & news letter will still be available in 3 weeks!

  2. Barry Stern
    Posted December 19, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Sadly, our schools are set up to protect the mainstream 90% of the students from the 10% who are a bit odd. Instead of reaching out to the 10% by including them in classroom and group activities, schools isolate and hide them. The dumber districts punish them via no tolerance and one-size-fits all disciplinary policies. Of course, this bureaucratic cya stuff doesn’t make children safer and costs millions. Yet the bureaucrats are content that they’ve done their jobs whereas in fact they have done great harm to not only the 10% and their parents, but the entire community. These wrong-headed policies trigger the tragedies waiting to happen, and our schools and law enforcement systems don’t even know it.

    Imagine a totally different scenario where schools, churches and community organizations periodically bring together parents of both the “normal” and “odd” kids, including those on the autism spectrum, and facilitate their listening to each other and strategizing how much safer everyone would be if their “normal” kids could find ways to include and befriend the “odd” ones, both in and outside of school. Ditto for the parents of the 90%. What could they do to help parents of the 10% become less isolated? An inclusive America is much stronger than the exclusive nation we are becoming. Sure, we can continue our discussion about guns, drugs, video games, and the need for more mental health professionals. But the enemy, as Pogo used to say, is us! The real issue is how to build inclusive schools and communities that leaves no odd kid behind.

    Would efforts to create more inclusive communities actually prevent tragedies like Newtown, Aurora, Virginia Tech, and Columbine? I have no idea. But I do know that all the safety precautions taken to date have not stopped these seriously troubled young men. Instead, these precautions have driven us apart and increased the isolation of the loners in our society or individuals whose brains are wired differently. Let’s spend more of our human capital on preventing tragedies like Newton. When we see odd kids in our community, let’s find ways to get to know and nurture them. Their parents need all the help they can get.

  3. Posted December 19, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    I have given this much thought. With emotions running high in the last week regarding this terrible massacre of innocents, I would like to propose the following: A worldwide (yes worldwide) education reform plan based on Multiple Intelligence Theory, wrapped in the the massive open online education (mooc) platform.
    Our schools are not safe. As a veteran urban educator, I have or witnessed violence many times. I have been maced three times. I have taken weapons off kids. I know one thing. Perpetrators can get into a school through any means necessary. With hundreds of children moving in and out, with parents, community workers visiting, with all the many entrances and exits…it is impossible, I believe to fully protect our kids.

    In addition, the “enemy within” lurks. This is the enormous amount of bullying that occurs in our schools…or through cyberspace, then spilling into schools. I believe that a mooc
    platform would enable kids to learn …with the vital socialization occurring through the increasingly sophisticated software programs that moocs provide.

    Children could further have social opportunities through neighborhood groups, or through agencies that already exist like the Boy/Girl Scout, YMCA/YWCA, and special interest groups.

    Dr. Carol Engler
    Associate Professor/Education
    Ashland University/Columbus Ohio

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