Speaking Out: Childhood in Lockdown

By Ari Gerzon-Kessler
Principal, March/April 2013

Even though Arapahoe Ridge Elementary is 2,000 miles from Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, within one hour of the tragic shoot­ing in December 2012, our office manager received calls from six worried parents asking, “What are you going to do to keep my child safe?”

Parents have a right to demand safety for their children. Leaving schools accessible to an intruder will no longer be acceptable in any school in America. Security at every school building in America must be enhanced. It is important for us to be better prepared to confront a poten­tial crisis and mitigate the carnage that might occur, even though pre­vention can never be full-proof.

On the other hand, I want our students to arrive at a school that is welcoming, not frightening. For example, as a principal I know that they need to be able to play outside at recess. Students have a right to feel the sunlight through windows without bars. They are entitled to childhoods of freedom, exploration, and joy.

How will we, as a culture, resolve these competing demands on our consciences? I believe that we need to increase the level of trust and sense of community in all of our schools, casting a wide, embracing net that protects us all. Greater connectivity between students, teachers, school leaders, counselors, parents, and community members leads to greater safety and resilience.

Community Dialogues
As somebody on the front lines of this battle for our children’s safety, I think there is no substitute for a respectful, inclusive, and ongo­ing dialogue about how we protect our schools and protect childhood itself. Any attempt to rush through a radical national school security plan should be resisted.

Our focus should be on identify­ing underlying causes, and initially offering up more questions than solu­tions. In the rush to find answers, we might miss the solutions that work.

The key ingredient in a sane response, from my perspective, is community. Each community knows its schools best. The right response in Manhattan will not be the cor­rect response in the wide open spaces of Missouri, and vice versa. This national dialogue needs to be bottom up, not top down. From the authentic voices of parents, teachers, and school leaders in communities across America, recommendations can emerge organically that have integrity at the grassroots.

Although it is an imperative that we become ever more vigilant in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, I can see how easy it would be for us to grow increasingly distrustful of each other and look for evil around each corner. By engaging in dialogue, we build trust and a sense of community as we develop solutions.

Connecting With Students
Roper studies and Gallup polls indicate that as many as 70 percent of school-age youth feel hopeless about the future and disempowered in their daily lives. What if each commu­nity asked itself the question, “How can we touch the hearts and feed the souls of all students so that there are no Adam Lanzas, who experience 13 years of schooling without having their hearts touched?”

What might be cultivated as well as prevented if we placed a greater focus on meeting the social and emotional needs of children, starting with their hearts? The most potent lesson I have learned as a teacher and a principal is that connecting with students’ inner lives is a powerful pathway to help them feel seen, valued, and nurtured. Fostering strong relation­ships is also the best way to develop students’ intellects and support their minds, and therefore provide safety for everyone.

Action Plan
While our nation debates these issues, principals can’t wait for the results of studies or mandates from new programs from the U.S. Depart­ment of Education. We will be chal­lenged to balance these competing issues at school tomorrow.

I intend to do what I hope the nation will do: I will work to strength­en our school community and invite all stakeholders into a deep and sustained dialogue. We will come together, in faith not in fear, and ask ourselves how we can keep our children safe—and still let them be children.

Ari Gerzon-Kessler is principal of Arapahoe Ridge Elementary School in Westminster, Colorado.

Here’s Your Chance to Speak Out:
How are you approaching the escalating demands for increased school security? Share your thoughts on the Principal’s Office blog at www.naesp.org/blog. Click on Speaking Out.


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