THE conversation under way about keeping schools safe is critically important. No parent wants to worry about whether his or her child will come home at the end of the day. No teacher wants to fret about whether an unauthorized intruder might target his or her school.
But what shouldn't get lost in the conversation is that no one policy makes schools a collectively safe place for students, teachers and other staff. School safety in its broadest sense is reliant on a few big policies and a thousand small decisions that students, teachers, principals and parents make every day.
Measures to screen who is entering and leaving a school building make sense. After all, many businesses take the same measures on behalf of adults who are much more capable of defending themselves in a crisis than a classroom of terrified first-graders.
It's anyone's guess at this point whether gun-toting teachers becomes one of those overarching policies. Likewise, every publicized instance of bullying brings about a fresh look at state policies and regulations designed to protect vulnerable students. Every school and every district has its own set of challenges. That's as true on the school safety front as it is for academics.
While an intruder bent on harming students is a parent's worst nightmare, an everyday school environment where behavioral disruptions make teaching and learning a difficult if not impossible task is a nightmare, too.
We've heard Terri White, who oversees state government's mental health programs, talk about the need for more such services in schools. White's passionate plea shouldn't fall on deaf ears. Undiagnosed mental and behavioral health issues are traumatic for the afflicted students, their peers and their teachers. Schools and teachers don't have nearly enough support or training in this area. Such training could create safer and more learning-focused school and classroom environments.
The state shouldn't play the heavy when it comes to student discipline policies. That's a definite area for local schools and communities to navigate, but we'd also suggest they could do better. The research on effective discipline is evolving, particularly as it relates to out-of-school suspensions and expulsions.
Consider what a school superintendent recently told Education Week magazine: “Too many times, the solution is to remove the child from the (school) environment. That does not mean you've removed them from a learning environment. They're just, instead, learning what the streets have to teach them.”
Finding the balance between preparing for the worst-case scenario and the everyday challenges in need of better solutions won't be easy. Issues of funding, staffing, training and priorities aren't easily re-solved.
Still, we urge policymakers at all levels not to let themselves buy into the idea that one or two major policy changes will produce a significant fix. The everyday culture of a school is important but relies on relationships, implementation of and adherence to effective discipline strategies and support for behavioral and mental health issues, among other things.
Keeping students safe from outside harm and helping them feel that school is a place where they feel safe and loved aren't necessarily the same thing. Both are important.