ED’s Perspective: Student Safety Requires Community and School Collaboration

By Gail Connelly
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: place 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.

It’s not surprising that overwhelmingly, principals’ first responses have been to put aside their own grief to support anxious parents of anxious children—many who are too young to fully understand the situation—assuring them of school safety. Principals across the country are also assessing their school safety plans, sharing them with teachers and families, and encouraging a national discourse on the issues that Sandy Hook raises about student mental health and well-being.

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. Representing the majority view of the nation’s elementary, middle, and high school principals, we called for solutions that are multi-faceted, meaningful, and proactive, and that will truly help schools prevent gun-related violence and improve safety. We do not believe that guns should 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. First, we know that there are immediate priorities and actions that principals can take to address security, such as installing deadbolts on classroom doors, repairing a broken lock on the exterior gymnasium door, or perhaps even installing a security camera and electronic entrance system. And while these types of measures might help, albeit with extra support from a central office, it is unlikely they alone would stop another incident like Sandy Hook from occurring. In addition, schools must be able to provide intervention and supports for students and families to address issues before they escalate to violence. A comprehensive solution requires drawing on the collective resources of an entire learning community—including superintendents, principals, teachers, school psychologists, and counselors—to address students’ safety, social, emotional, and mental-health needs. School safety and violence prevention must begin with schools and local communities coming together to provide thoughtful, pragmatic, and inclusive programs and initiatives that will address the underlying issues that lead to violence.

NAESP will work to provide safety and planning resources necessary to keep schools current on security measures and help principals deal with issues such as updating and repairing security equipment and influencing or changing district policies that hinder them in meeting unique safety needs that are contextually different for each school. But, more importantly, we will strive to strengthen school communities as sanctuaries of non-violence by encouraging incentives designed to bring together schools with community-based health and safety institutions, providers, and policymakers. Principals, who take extraordinary measures to protect the safety and well-being of their students, should be afforded the tools and resources needed to safeguard students, families, and school buildings.

We are cautiously optimistic about the proposals put forth by President Obama. They represent a meaningful first step to address broad-ranging gun violence prevention, effective school safety measures and training for educators in emergency management, and coordinated systems that can promptly address students’ mental-health needs. And we agreed with President Obama who said that 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—principals are already devoted to helping school climates flourish. NAESP is committed to building principals’ capacities to continue to do so and to share best practices around discipline, bullying policies, and school culture.

As we carry this message to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, we will continue to seek meaningful solutions that work for principals, schools, and communities. Principals like Mark Terry are determined to protect every child even if it means putting their own lives on the line –as a society we must do everything possible to keep our children safe so that no one ever has to make this ultimate sacrifice.

Gail Connelly is NAESP Executive Director.

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