School Safety Lessons Learned: From Cleveland to Newtown
I dealt with school violence before it was front-page news. To me, any child killed anywhere, anytime, is a huge tragedy; but, decades ago, when children were killed in the inner city of Cleveland, you probably never heard about them. The Newtown shootings shocked this country like no other school violence. Working in school safety for over 30 years, I have tried to help schools and communities keep our youth safe and healthy so that they can learn more and live better. I offer several lessons that I have learned.
School violence can happen anywhere, but not here.
After school shootings, it is often heard, “I cannot believe that it can happen here.” As we have learned, school violence can happen anywhere. Don’t be surprised after the next tragedy if someone says, “I cannot believe that it can happen here.” Denial is human but, denial allows violence and danger to grow unseen.
Be prepared, not scared.
Schools are not powerless. Awareness, education, and advocacy can help break down this attitude that it can’t happen here. Schools and districts need to have a school-community emergency plan of action in place for students, staff, and parents. It should be both practiced and proactive. Practice drills are crucial. Preparation allows violence and potential danger to be dealt with before it unfolds.
Social media has changed how we communicate.
Texts, tweets, and Facebook posts, which were not around at the time of the Columbine shootings, now offer instant information–and misinformation. Before problems occur, students need to be part of a dialogue with parents and educators to make schools safer. Social media may prove to be one of the best new tools to help keep our schools safe and parents informed, and to encourage students to take ownership of their schools and education.
Bullying is a symptom, and mental health is the issue.
Bullying is a hot topic and often is blamed for school violence. Bullying is serious and must be addressed but, bullying is often referred to as a cause for school violence even when it is not, as in Columbine. Issues such as mental illness, depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, anger, family violence and substance abuse are often at the root of bullying behaviors and require immediate attention.
Treat the illness: not the symptom.
Many experts advocate for a comprehensive mental-health approach for the schools, families, and community. Some suggest that teachers be taught mental health first aid to assist those in crisis. As we often see, hurt people, hurt people; and the use of mental health and wellness professionals, such as, school counselors, school social workers, school nurses, school psychologists, as well as, school resource officers may enable us to help people, help people.
Building relationships is key.
The Secret Service found that school shooters usually tell other kids, but not adults. Adults trusted by kids may be given life saving information. Teaching to the heart, as well as to the head to reach the whole child, not only academically, but also to the social, mental, emotional, physical and spiritual dimensions, will help build a school and community of respect and trust.
When emergency occurs, you need to be aggressive, forceful, and effective.
An emergency plan of action needs to be in place, practiced and proactive. Teachers and students should be trained and practiced in emergency protocols. Parents need low tech and high tech communication systems for responding to school emergencies. Gone are the days of Columbine when police waited for hours to enter the school. Today police and community emergency response teams are trained for rapid response. School communities must prepare with responders in order to address emergencies.
Healing is personal.
Schools need to be prepared to deal with the consequences of violence immediately and long after the incident. Individuals react to trauma and grief in a wide a range of ways, and there is no best way or timeline for these processes.
There are no guarantees, only intelligent alternatives.
Today, we are better prepared to deal with and prevent school violence than we were in the earlier days in Cleveland and Columbine. There still is no 100% guarantee that our schools will be violence-free. There are no easy solutions, but there are intelligent alternatives to reduce the risks. It’s time for all schools to explore these alternatives. For some, tomorrow may be too late.
Dr. Stephen Sroka, Safe and Sound Advisor and Professional Contributor.
© 2013 Stephen R. Sroka, PhD, Lakewood, Ohio. Used with permission.
Stephen Sroka, PhD, is an adjunct assistant professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and the president of Health Education Consultants. He is an award-winning educator, author and internationally recognized speaker. He has worked with school violence issues worldwide for more than 30 years. Connect with Sroka on his website www.DrStephenSroka.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org