Student Safety—A Principal’s First Priority

By Gail Connelly, NAESP Executive Director
Communicator
January 2013, Volume 36, Issue 5

Days after the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, a reporter approached NAESP President Mark Terry to gauge a principal’s perspective on the events. The reporter asked Terry, principal of Eubanks Intermediate School, in Southlake, Texas, if he knew other principals who would do what Sandy Hook Elementary principal Dawn Hochsprung did, placing herself in mortal danger to protect her students.

Terry—true to his Texas roots—did not mince words. “I don’t know one who wouldn’t lay down their life for our kids,” he replied.

Every one of the principals I know would agree wholeheartedly with Terry’s sentiment. Yes, principals may wear a lot of hats in schools—instructional leader, coach, disciplinarian, mediator—but their first priority undoubtedly is to keep students safe.

In the  days and weeks since that awful morning in Newtown, many of us—parents, educators, lawmakers and leaders alike—have struggled to find ways to prevent violence in our schools and take action to protect our nation’s children from harm. To this end, NAESP and NASSP joined together to offer recommendations to the National Gun Violence Task Force chaired by Vice President Joe Biden. In representing the majority view of the nation’s principals, together, we called for solutions that are multi-faceted and meaningful to schools. Foremost, our organizations do not believe that guns have a place in our schools, or that arming educators is the answer.

The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School has shown that violence in our schools and communities is not a school problem or a community problem—it is both. While it is important to help principals address the immediate safety needs in schools—like installing the deadbolt on the classroom doors, or fixing the outside lock on the gymnasium door—principals have and are taking action to make schools safer than ever before. A principal's first responsibility is to foster a safe, orderly, warm, and inviting environment. To be effective, schools must be able to provide intervention and supports for students and families, and draw upon the collective resources of the entire learning community.

Our nation’s educators, including principals, teachers, as school psychologists and counselors, are deeply committed professionals who work tirelessly to address the safety, social, emotional as well as cognitive needs of students each day. They must be supported to work together. Going forward, NAESEP will work to provide principals the safety and planning that is necessary for keeping schools current on security measures, such as reviewing how district policies do or do not help principals meet the unique context of each school, and providing principals with adequate resources for updating and repairing security equipment. More importantly, we will also focus on incentives for schools, community-based health and safety institutions, providers, and policymakers to work together to ensure that schools remain community sanctuaries of non-violence that will protect the well-being of every student.    

NAESP approaches the proposals put forth by President Obama with cautious optimism. They represent a meaningful first step to address gun violence prevention, ensure school safety, and coordinate systems that properly address the mental health needs of students and their families. Going forward, we will continue to support principals to address safety issues in their schools, as long as it is a local decision that includes critical community partners, such as first responders, emergency management personnel, qualified safety experts, school-based and community mental health workers, and everyone who needs to be a partner in the school community.

We agree with President Obama: schools must be supported to cultivate a nurturing climate and culture. That is where principals take the lead. The recommendations read: “[O]ne of the best things schools can do to reduce violence and bullying is to improve a school’s climate and increase trust and communications between students and staff.” We couldn’t agree more—many of our members are already devoted to helping their school’s climate flourish. The President’s recommendations include initiatives to grow and share best practices around discipline, bullying policies, and school culture.

NAESP will continue to take this  message forward to lawmakers and work to craft the solutions that work for principals, schools and communities. Principals like Mark Terry are determined to protect every child in their schools by sharing and assessing their school safety plans with teachers and families, encouraging a national discourse to identify solutions, and taking action to support research-based violence prevention and related comprehensive support programs.

Gail Connelly is NAESP's Executive Director.

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