7 Steps to Safer Schools: A Principal Speaks

7 Steps to Safer Schools: A Principal Speaks December 27, 2012

It’s been 13 days since we first heard of the horrible massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. That’s right, only thirteen days. It feels like a lot longer.

For the families and friends of the victims, I can’t begin to process how long those days have felt. I can only continue to pray for their healing.

I’ve been reluctant to compile and share my thoughts on the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook in Newtown for two reasons:

  1. I’ve been there before. As a school principal and school leader for the last dozen years, I know what it’s like to some degree. I’ve felt the daily, personal responsibility of student safety. I’ve lost students to death come early, waited with others for ambulances and parents, and shared the worst of news with kids I love. And then hugged them when words just wouldn’t help anymore. I’ve looked parents in the eye when they told me, as only parents can, that they’re trusting me to protect their kids. Alongside that responsibility, I’ve known the frustration of only being able to do so much to do just that.
  2. The other reason I’ve hesitated to speak is that although this tragedy is all too real for me, I know that won’t stop the hate-filled animosity that I’ve seen flowing around the Internet, mostly in one direction. But I come back to the Scriptural warning: “If you know to do good, but don’t do it, it’s sin.” Not good.

So I’ll brave my own feelings and the threat of calumny from others to press forward with sharing 7 steps to safer schools. Maybe they’ll help us stop some suffering in the future. At least they’ll get us thinking; and that’s a start. I’ll develop each step as its own post in the coming weeks.

7 Steps to Safer Schools

  1. Identify the Real Problem. No, it’s not the NRA. Or the NEA. Or Presidents Obama or Bush. There is evil in this world. It is real. And it is the real problem. At the heart of the Christian gospel is the fact that all is not as it should be in this fallen world. Christians need not run from this reality — though we hate it with a passion — for Christ came to end it. Christmas is all about God overriding our rebellion to begin a process of reconciling evil people to Himself. But evil still exists as that process unfolds in time and space. And it always will, though one day it will be permanently confined. No amount of security, legislation, or steps can always stop a creative but corrupt monster willing to trade his or her own life for that of another — just ask the Secret Service which deals with that reality on a daily basis.
  2. Mitigate Contributing Factors. No, video games are not the primary cause. Nor is the media’s 24/7 rush for ratings or the glorification of the shooter’s face, name, and family history. But we do need to talk about how these and other factors may have contributed to the problem. And, by all means, let’s have a sane and reasonable look at gun laws to see if something needs to be done there. But let’s have rational conversations about them all, not ideological spasms that simply spew sound bytes all over the place. While we’re at it, dare I suggest we talk about returning lessons of morality and character instruction to their rightful center of education in public schools. Maybe we should also consider the effect of teaching shoddy science based on faith in defunct Darwinian theories on the origins of man. Certainly, we should talk about teaching children that they are nothing more than random genetic mutations without any purpose in life when we plainly see that their lives are so obviously more precious than that.
  3. Take Reasonable Precautions. Having led in a school on a daily basis for a dozen years,  I understand the value of taking practical, proactive security steps. Restricting traffic into and near schools, requiring identification, enhancing video surveillance, constructing aesthetically pleasing but effective physical barriers to entry, and designing pro-active systems to head off threats before they reach the students — all these and more need our attention. But let’s do it without creating a “bunker mentality” that promotes more fear at the expense of creativity. See my post To All Those Who Want Safer Schools in Newtown for more on avoiding that course.
  4. Empower Those Who Care Most. No one cares more for the kids than their parents, teachers, and local school administrators. No, not even politicians in Washington who give emotional press conferences or bureaucrats at the Department of Education. But there is a problem. In Ohio, for example, a parent or teacher can legally carry a concealed weapon in their car in the parking lot to protect their kids. But once the child steps into the building, those who care the most can do the least. So take the bulls-eye off schools and other “gun-free” zones. More on this when I develop this point in future posts, but I know from personal experience that good teachers and principals will run toward, not away from, gunfire. Unfortunately, regardless of their level of weapons expertise, they must run empty-handed. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can empower them AND keep schools safer for all.
  5. Prepare for the Worst. Jesus warned us that in this world, we will have trouble. Offenses will come. Solomon advised that we’d be wise to see evil coming and prepare accordingly. Educators, parents, and community leaders can go a long way toward avoiding or at least lessening the long-term impact of local tragedy by intentionally cultivating community. I’ve seen this done right here in Chardon. I describe a glimpse of that process in How to Prepare for a Crisis: Ministry Lessons from the Chardon Shooting. To do this right, we must rethink the role churches play in our schools. Churches are at the heart, or should be, of most communities. The powers that be in education will have to get over their fear of being sued by the ACLU and start building bridges — before shots are fired or the next natural disaster strikes. 
  6. Preserve Our Freedoms. If we have to err, let’s do so on the side of preserving the freedoms that make our culture strong. It would be the saddest of all ironies if, in our rush to protect places of learning, we created schools where learning stopped taking place. The very institutions created to pass on the rich heritage of freedoms must not themselves become excuses for violating thse very freedoms.  Freedom is messy business, full of risk and responsibility, and fraught with peril. But the absence of freedom produces certain doom.
  7. Free Local School Districts to Act. In my experience, most educators will acknowledge, some only privately, that their hands are tied for the most part when it comes to school safety — and a lot of other areas. Unions, federal and state bureaucracies, fear of lawsuits — all these and more unite to restrict local school authorities from doing what they think best for the safety of their students. The present system emphasizes a “top-down” mentality that causes schools to more resemble a behemoth aircraft carrier than adroit speedboats, easily adjusting to facts on the ground in each school district. One solution may not work for another. Yet all are presently forced to work largely within the same restrictions. By returning authority for decision-making to the local level, we can free local leaders to create security policies that they know will work well in their community and specific situation. They can then post the policies and let parents choose the safety environment they deem best for their children.

What Do You Think?

I warned that these 7 steps to safer schools are but an overview, a framework on which I plan to build over the next few weeks. I welcome you to follow along as I share more detail on each of them. And feel free to comment.

Before any of you start in with hate-filled assumptions about me, remember that a) I’m not interested invectives, just rational conversation; and b) school shootings like the one in Newton and right here in my hometown of Chardon are all too real for me and many others.

What do you think of these steps for safer schools? What would you add?

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  • Rick

    “Preserve our freedoms” is another way of saying “don’t pass any gun laws, because the 2nd Amendment must never be touched.” You said, if we have to err, let’s do it on the side of freedom. But that’s kind of what we’ve done, I think, over the past 18 years. The last significant gun restriction was the assault weapons ban of 1994, and since then, gun rights have run the table. And so we have weekly reports of malls and schools getting shot up, and firefighters getting ambushed; anyone with a grievance can find a gun. Such is not the case in most other wealthy nations.

    After 9/11, in the name of public safety, the Patriot Act was passed with overwhelming Congressional and public support. Although the Patriot Act has consequences for our 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th Amendment rights, most of us agree that those rights are still in place. Tell me again why the 2nd Amendment is the one that must never be impacted for the sake of public safety?

    Although I agree human evil is a factor in things like this, I also assume that the Japanese public is just as evil as the American public. Yet in Japan, public shootings almost never happen. You can either conclude that Japanese evil has been eradicated (and in kinky, secular Japan, I refuse to believe that), or that guns are hard to obtain in that country. In other words, the availability of guns IS a problem for the U.S. Nancy Lanza’s gun purchases, which were totally legal, ended up killing 26 innocent people.

  • Jennifer

    It is interesting how two people can read the same thing and interpret it differently. I did not read step six as an advocation for unrestricted gun use or as a call to defend the 2nd amendment – though it certainly could have been meant that way. I read it more as a plea not to throw the many cultural freedoms Americans enjoy under the bus in the name of safety. I think of Americans as people who, ideally, have a lot of personal control over their fate. This can sometimes go terribly wrong, but it can also lead to amazing resourcefulness, ingenuity and growth. This kind of freedom could be negatively affected if a decision was made, for instance, to turn schools into “bunkers” despite the fact that they are statistically very safe places for children. Children might be cut off from their larger community, they might feel that school is a dangerous place (and fear makes it harder to learn). Educators and school officials might not be allowed to make the decisions that best reflect their unique school environment because a one-size-fits all model has been imposed. They will not be given the power to determine the best course of action for their students. Parents will also be denied a say in how they want their children’s school life to go. All of these things restrict freedoms.

    Maybe we need to define what is meant by freedom in this particular discussion!

    • Rick

      In the name of “freedom”, we work very hard to ensure that people can buy whatever they want at gun shows, because the 2nd Amendment has been twisted as an open invitation to allow the populace to be armed to the teeth. The full wording of the amendment has something to do with well-regulated militias, and was written at a time when we needed your average colonial farmer to pitch in and shoot a Redcoat. Somehow, today, that amendment allows Bubba to buy some monstrous weapon at Wal-Mart just because it makes him feel validated (evidence suggests Nancy Lanza was one of those who bought into the fear-your-government rhetoric). Haven’t enough kids died for the church to insist that 300 million weapons for 300 million people is a bit much?

      • Jennifer

        I am not a gun loving member of the NRA (or the Canadian equivalent). I don’t own a gun or know anyone who does. I don’t want one or think I need one. I also think that it is too easy for some American citizens to get guns.

        I think that it is too easy – and short sighted – to throw all the blame onto guns. South Africa, for instance, has a fairly low civilian gun rate at 12.7/100 civilians. Their homocide by gun rate is 17/100,000 which is about triple the rate in the United States. Obviously there are other factors at work here and gun statistics don’t tell the whole story.. In my opinion we put our children at greater risk by trying to blame tragic deaths on one aspect of a society – in this case American gun culture. Guns may certainly be a factor, but they are not the only one as a comparison of different countries and their gun statistics will show (GunPolicy.org is a useful resource). If we restrict our focus to guns we will not see the larger picture. And as a Mom, a daycare provider of over 25 years and as someone who loves children with all of her heart it is my honest belief that we need to see beyond (though including) the gun issue.

  • Jennifer

    This is one of the most holistic proposals I’ve read, Bill. It reflects the complexity of the problem. I look forward to reading your expanded thoughts.

  • Dorfl

    If you want to have a rational conversation, rather than ideological sound bytes, I think there is one fact you have to start with:

    This type of gun violence is rare to nonexistent in the rest of the industrialised world. It is only in America that anything like this happens on such a regular basis.

    This means that any discussion about contributing factors has to be in terms of things that are unique to America. Pointing to factors that are present in the rest of the industrialised world – Evil, lack of morality instruction, teaching of evolution – does not explain anything. It’s simply repeating ideological and theological talking points.

    • Jennifer

      Interesting point. What makes Americans different? I don’t live in the United States so I can only offer an impression of a citizenry with very strong beliefs in the rights of the individual (more so than in any other country I know) and also a seemingly widespread feeling of superiority in the sense that they are “World leaders”, “favoured by God”, etc. is there something in particular that you feel makes Americans unique and that might be contributing to this particular level of violence?

      • Dorfl

        I really have no idea. I don’t live in America either, so any guess I could make about what contributes to this kind of violence would end up being based entirely on poorly-informed national stereotypes, I’m afraid.

        But the attempts at explaining school shootings that I’ve heard have more often than not been in terms of factors shared by the rest of the industrialised world (violent entertainment, secularisation, etc). That obviously cannot be correct, and gives a pretty strong hint that the speaker was more interested in promoting some pet cause than in actually finding ways to do anything about school shootings. Or that it honestly doesn’t occur to them that looking at the outside world for information is a thing they can do. Hence my attempts at nudging Bill and going ‘Psst, you can actually look at the rest of the world, gather data to identify correlations, and from that try to untangle causal relationships. You don’t have to use the US as your only data point.’

        • Thanks for the nudge. I’ve already begun to do just that. Japan, for example, has had lower rates of violent crimes. Although those rates are rising quickly, they are still well behind the US. At leasts in crimes that get reported. Japan has historically been a very closed culture, intent on saving face above all. That cultural phenomenon has, many think, skewed the statistics considerably. There are also cultural norms at work there which are several millenia old. As those are beginning to slip of late, the rates seem to be on the rise. Seem. And World War 2 had left a long-reaching scar on the psyche of that people. Likewise in Germany… Still digging…

          But another question is this: is it legitimate to toss out the violence perpetrated by governments on their own people when having this discusion on gun control? The numbers are staggering (we’re tlaking millions, not dozens or hundreds) and most critics of gun control site that concern as one of the leading reasons to resist gun control efforts.

          • Dorfl

            While I wouldn’t be surprised at all if crimes like rape, domestic violence and similar turned out to be very under-reported in Japan, I don’t see how murder could be. Dead bodies with bullet wounds are a bit difficult to explain away. Which is why the murder rate is sometimes seen as the most reliable way of estimating rates of violence in general, in a society.

            Also, note that I haven’t said anything about gun control, or given any opinion on how best to fight gun violence. I’m not qualified to say anything about what might work in the US, nor do I think it’s my place to give that advice.

    • You raise an interesting point as to the data when comparing with other countries. You don’t point to any dtaa yourself to back up your claimthat is is “only” in the US thta this happens. If you could do so, I’d apprciate it. Some have suggested Japan as one with which we should compare the US. I’m beginning to explore the data behind that claim now. Will respond more thoroughly later once I can look at the facts. I suspect there are a numebr of other factors that would impact that rather than a clear coorelation between banning guns and violence in a society.

      • Dorfl

        I don’t claim that it only happens in the US. There was a shooting in Jokela, Finland, in 2007 for example. A few years ago a school shooting here, Sweden, was only narrowly avoided when the police caught the perpetrators before they could act.

        I admit I cannot find any governmental organisations directly listing rates of school shootings per country. However, if you look ‘School shootings’ up in Wikipedia, there is a separate article for ‘School shootings in the United States’, which contains several times more posts than the ordinary article on school shootings. More or less the same happens for any other informal source listing school shootings that I can find. But of course, that could simply be a result of American school shootings being more widely reported.

  • Brian Westley

    Just a couple of comments on specific statements:

    “Maybe we should also consider the effect of teaching shoddy science based on faith in defunct Darwinian theories on the origins of man. Certainly, we should talk about teaching children that they are nothing more than random genetic mutations without any purpose in life when we plainly see that their lives are so obviously more precious than that.”

    This shows me that you 1) do not know science, and 2) have an unrealistically narrow view of ethics. Evolution is not “shoddy science” and you may as well rant against the periodic table for telling students they are just assemblages of chemicals and suggest that ending chemistry classes would help.

    “Churches are at the heart, or should be, of most communities. The powers that be in education will have to get over their fear of being sued by the ACLU and start building bridges — before shots are fired or the next natural disaster strikes.”

    The ACLU fights FOR rights, not against them, and in any case they don’t make the final judgements — that’s what judges do. You may as well complain about the US constitution, and given your vague enthusiasm for churches and schools, I’ll guess that you want some sort of religious indoctrination in public schools, which would violate the students’ religious rights.

    • Brian, thanks for taking the time to comment. I’ll delve more into the evolution comment in later posts. Although simply saying someone doesn’t know science who dares to question what is supposed to be a theory — and one in trouble in the the broader scientific community — simply proves the point that it has itself become a religion taken by faith that may not be questioned.

      As to your concern about religion in schools, the last thing I would ever want is for a child attending a public school to have to be indoctrinated by a system of beliefs with which they disagree. On that, incredibily, we would agree. Unfortuantely, that is exactly what we have now.

      • Brian Westley

        Well, I’ll take up your evolution comments later posts. However:

        ” Although simply saying someone doesn’t know science who dares to question what is supposed to be a theory”

        You can question all you like, but you need to understand what you’re questioning. Do you understand evolution? I don’t think you do.

        “and one in trouble in the the broader scientific community”

        The only people I ever see saying evolution is in “trouble” are people trying to promote creationism, which isn’t science for the simple reason it doesn’t follow the scientific method.

        “simply proves the point that it has itself become a religion taken by faith that may not be questioned.”

        No, evolution is a real scientific theory; it has models that explain observations and makes predictions. You and anyone else can try to poke holes in it.

        • So, if “The only people I ever see saying evolution is in “trouble” are people trying to promote creationism” then you’d only accept evidence against Darwinism from those who still support it in spite of finding it faulty? That list will likely be pretty thin.

          I do agree on your other comment as to the utter pointlessness of the petition from a legal standpoint. It is an argument agaisnt it, but I think not the critical one. In our media-driven age, you don’t need legal action to create media frenzy and momementum to shift thought. Once thinking changes, the laws will soon follow. I’m curious as to what you think of hate laws in general.

          What parts of the intelligent design theory or the creationist theory do you think do not follow the scientific method where Darwinian theory does?

          • Brian Westley

            “So, if “The only people I ever see saying evolution is in “trouble” are people trying to promote creationism” then you’d only accept evidence against Darwinism from those who still support it in spite of finding it faulty? That list will likely be pretty thin.”

            That’s a false dichotomy; you’re assuming there are only two groups:
            1) people trying to promote creationism
            2) people who support evolution (not “Darwinism”, by the way)
            If evolution really were in trouble, there would be people who aren’t creationists who also do not support evolution.

            “What parts of the intelligent design theory or the creationist theory do you think do not follow the scientific method where Darwinian theory does?”

            Intelligent design/creationism does not make any falsifiable predictions; evolution does.

      • Jennifer

        I don’t think that Darwinism is the main theory of evolution any more – though the new theory incorporates many of the features of Darwin’s theory.

        Regardless, the point I disagree on from personal experience is that children who are taught evolution in school feel that their lives are without purpose.

      • Dorfl

        I too, will try to respond to what you’ll write about evolution. Since I am a part time* science teacher, it’s obviously a subject that’s very important to me. Before that though, can I try to explain why most questioning of evolution ends up getting such a hostile response?

        Imagine that you’re trying to hold a lesson. A few students drop in a few minutes late, and instead of quietly speed-reading their coursebooks to catch up, they demand that you repeat everything you’ve said so far. You decide to humour them, but as soon as you’re finished a few more students drop in and demand the same thing. This time you say no, to their obvious annoyance. For the next hour pairs of students keep dropping in, each time demanding that you should pause the lesson until you’ve repeated everything that has been said so far again.

        In scientific terms, the intelligent design movement are the tenth pair of students, who get interrupted mid-“I’m sorry I’m late, could-” by the teacher yelling “NO! Sit down and be quiet!”: There was once a meaningful debate about evolution vs. creationism, but by the late nineteenth century it was pretty much over. There was simply not much left to say. Ever since however, biologists have had to deal with a constant stream of people wanting to ‘question’ evolution, but completely unwilling to learn enough about the subject to actually be capable of questioning it in any meaningful way. I don’t think it’s that surprising that by the twentieth time a biologist hears an argument that a first-year student could rebut, their response tends to be less than warm – even if I also understand that it’s not very pleasant to be at the receiving end of this.

        * Very part time, admittedly. Most of my time is taken up by my own studies.

        • Sorry it took so long to reply to this, but I wanted to share my take on your analogy: From my persepctive, the evolutionist continues to lecture at the front of the classroom as more and more students are slipping out the back of the room as Darwinian theories fail to explain what science observes in the universe and contradicts itself. But they keep on talking, saying that the science is settled and that they are tired of explaining it all over again to the new kids. But there are no new kids. Only fewer of the old ones — and they’re looking as if they might head to the door soon.

          I think that within my lifetime, the settled science will acknowledge Darwin’s theories to have been so much scientific bunk. That is not to say that they will then embrace a creationist’s point of view, only that Darwin will fade into obscurity where he rightly belongs.

          • Dorfl

            I have heard claims of the form “Scientists are abandoning the theory of evolution in droves and really soon it will collapse” very many times. I don’t know how to demonstrate that this is not the case to someone who – as far as I know – has no personal connection to the scientific community. After all, I can get a fairly good idea what the consensus view is among biologists through asking a bunch of biologists. But when I repeat that to you, you have only my word that I’m not making things up. And when someone else claims that more and more scientists are abandoning the theory of evolution, I understand that you have no reason to dismiss that claim.

            So even though biologists continue to use the theory of evolution, and the fossil record keeps filling in much like an evolutionary biologist would expect it to, and the invention of DNA sequencing has shown that different species have much the relatedness we’d expect, there is no way I can easily demonstrate that any of those things are true. The most I can do is to recommend that you find a biologist where you live – someone who is not themselves a conservative evangelical – and ask them to describe the current state of biology.

            That you find a biologist who isn’t also a conservative evangelical is vital. I apologise if it’s tactless to bring this up, but I promise that I’m not doing it to offend but because it’s the clearest example I know of what I’m about to say:

            Immediately before the election, conservatives where convinced of a landslide victory for Romney. At the same time, a statistician Nate Silver kept pointing out that the numbers unambigously predicted an Obama victory. He was largely ignored by conservatives. Then the election happened, and conservatives were stunned to find that Obama had won, winning in exactly those states he’d been predicted to.

            I don’t bring this up because I want a discussion about the election. Since I’m Swedish, I obviously find both candidates completely alien to my values. My point is that conservatives (here too, incidentally) have a very strong tendency to form isolated bubbles, which then end up perceiving a much stronger support for their own views than actually exists. To get around that, you have to look for information about biology from sources that don’t also share your political and religious views.

          • I would agree with you that the one (elections results) has nothing to do with the other. I’m curious, do you look for scientific information from sources who don’t share your viewpoint, such as creationists, ID scientists, etc?

          • Dorfl

            I have occasionally checked what ID or creationist sources have to say – albeit admittedly mostly from a general sense of obligation that I should take the time to check if there is anything to it. What I have seen usually hasn’t been encouraging, but I have looked.

            I definitely do get scientific information from people with different political and religious views. It’s hard not to, given that the scientific community is scattered over the entire world. While scientists usually tend to be vaguely atheist-agnostic, there are many Christian scientists – Francis Collins is one famous example. And political ideologies are so culture-dependent (American liberalism and Swedish liberalism don’t share much beyond the name) that any scientific team will have several political views represented inside it.

          • Jennifer

            Is it evolution itself – the idea that biological organisms can change/”evolve” over time – that you think is “bunk”? Or is it how the current theory of evolution hypothesizes this change occurs? Or do you believe that organisms don’t change? It’s a pretty vast subject and I’m not clear on what elements of it you disagree with.

            Any scientist that could disprove evolution would be famous – and have grant money – beyond his wildest dreams. It just hasn’t happened yet. Are there questions? Yes, but I think there needs to be a distinction made between data which is not currently explainable using the theory of evolution (which might or might not be explainable at some point), gaps in our knowledge and data that proves it wrong.

          • Jen,

            Good point. My orignal objection as to Darwinian theories, not necessarily current trends in evolutionary thought.

            I’ve seen two general definitions on the word evolution in this context. The first is evolution within a species. Of course that happens — hence the plethora of variety of dogs, for example. This is the evolution I believe Darwin observed amongst his finches.

            The second refers to evolution from one species into another, from simpler life forms into more complex life forms. On this one I have scientific, philosophical, and theological disagrements.

            I realize there are some shades of grey in between, but in the interest of time….

      • Jennifer

        Scienctific theories are always open to question – that is why there are no scientific “proofs”, only theories. The scientific method contains the following steps:

        1. Observe some aspect of the universe.
        2. Invent a tentative description, called a hypothesis, that is consistent with what you have observed.
        3. Use the hypothesis to make predictions.
        4. Test those predictions by experiments or further observations and modify the hypothesis in the light of your results.
        5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until there are no discrepancies between theory and experiment and/or observation.

        It is also important, as someone else commented, that the theory is falsifiable – it can be shown to be wrong.

        I’m not sure how you would use the hypothesis of creationism to create testable predictions. Or modify something that is not considered to be modifiable (God’s inerrant word). Is creationism open to change if new evidence appears? Can we scientifically prove that God did not create the Universe (falsifiable)? If we CAN do these things then creationism might be scientific – open to modifiable hypothesis and experimental testing.