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Virginia Journal of Education

The View from Inside

What School Employees Recommend to Make Schools Safer Places

In the wake of the Newtown school shooting tragedy, 11 NEA members from across the country, including Sonia Smith of the Chesterfield Education Association, spent several weeks compiling and distilling input from their colleagues about how we might improve school safety.

The result, a project of the VIVA (Voice Ideas Vision Action) NEA Idea Exchange, is “Sensible Solutions for Safe Schools,” a report offering seven distinct recommendations for schools and school divisions to consider.
“After working on this writing collaborative, I have discovered that school safety is not just about armed guards and locked classroom doors,” says Smith. “In order for real school safety to happen across this country, the culture of our public schools and the communities that surround them must change.”

Here, with NEA’s permission, are excerpts from “Sensible Solutions”:

Put Character in the Curriculum
Our current education system seems to value only what it can measure. Year after year, educators are required to give more assessments in more subjects more frequently. Yet, all of the attention being paid to this one small part of education suggests that knowledge is the primary goal of education. This assumption comes at the cost of the rest of the child, and ignores the fact that knowledge is a means to an end, and not an end in of itself. Just as we do not expect students to learn math, science, language, and other skills on their own, we cannot expect them to also learn character and peace creation on their own.

Proposed Solutions
1.    Develop and offer professional development on educating the whole child.
Educators already have a strong base of content knowledge from which to pull, but most feel inadequate in dealing with values, character, conflict and crisis situations.

2.   Counter overexposure to violent acts and language with exposure to rules of etiquette.
Bring back “The Golden Rule,” and teach students what it means to have and practice “prudence, temperance and fortitude.”

3.    Implement curriculum and practices to increase self-awareness.
If we truly want to ensure safety for others, we must first trust that we are safe ourselves. Self-awareness is a skill that can help regulate undesired behaviors and prevent conflicts and negative feelings from escalating.

4.    Maximize the potential of peer pressure to increase social accountability.
• Schools need to build environments that foster positive, not dangerous, behaviors.  If a school’s mission is about respect or character, that mission should be reflected in every facet of the school.  Students should be required to take ethics courses to gain exposure to moral questions and to develop their own answers to those questions.
• Too frequently, students do not hold each other accountable, and rely on mediators to resolve conflict. They need to be taught to handle confrontational situations in a caring way.

5.    Balance curriculum with exposure to nonviolence and nonviolent conflict.
• Students should study nonviolent tactics such as negotiation, compromise, organized resistance, noncooperation, civil disobedience, and civilian-based defense with just as much frequency as they study violent conflict. Though understudied and marginalized in our curricula, nonviolence has proven to be an effective and enduring means of resolving conflict.

6.    Honor diversity.
• Students are exposed to negative stereotyping associated with diverse cultures, races, languages, and religions. Meanwhile, our schools do not do enough to expose them to important contributions made  by widely diverse individuals. To change this, schools should implement programs to expose students to positive experiences with diverse races, religions, cultures, and languages across the content areas.

7.    Implement a “Pro-Hero” rather than an “Anti-Bully” curriculum.
Our current mandate of an “anti-bullying” curriculum is well intentioned, but only teaches students what not to do, which many students already know.

Practice and Teach Effective Conflict Resolution
Oftentimes, our most violent students (“violent” not being limited to physical violence, but also including mental and emotional violence) show a pattern of undesired behavior. Our traditional model of handling unwanted behavior is to punish it in the hopes of curbing it. Children who have behavioral issues are often identified early and “treated” with punishments like staying after class, detention, suspension, and sometimes expulsion. Research suggests lost time in class and school leads to (further) alienation and early involvement with the juvenile justice system.

8.   Educate and train administrators, teachers and students in restorative justice practices.
• A more productive way to remedy misbehavior is to promote restorative justice practices instead of retributive justice. When a student gets into trouble, it’s important not just to punish, but to address the impact of the individuals’ behavior.

9.    Implement a “True Strength Walks Away” program in schools.
Developed by NEA, this program would encourage students to walk away from confrontational and violent situations, and provide them with alternative behaviors to use. 

Treat a School as a Community
To develop connections to our students and families, we must know who they are.

10.  Offer professional development to ensure professional staff understands the physiological and psychological impacts of struggles outside of school on student growth and development.
Schools can develop programs to build character, but first they must recognize that the undesired behavior often is not simply a matter of choice.  While all our professional staff members are taught the process of brain development in growing children, it is equally important that educators learn about the effect family struggles and stresses and other outside factors have on student growth and development.

11.  Increase and foster collaboration between schools and experts on community demographics.
Community experts, including police, city officials and social service agencies, can provide school staff with information about their surrounding neighborhoods and local demographics that affect the safety of the school and students.

12.  Offer enrichment activities before and after school.
• Schools should develop and provide meaningful and engaging before- and after-school activities for students, and compensate teachers and staff who work outside of their contractual day.

Improve and Increase Mental Health Support for Students, Educators and Families
Due to state and federal funding cuts in education, mental health services have been significantly compromised in school settings. Some districts employ a single social worker or psychologist for all their students. Failure to help students progress or receive services early enough often results in more complex problems.

13.  Secure funding for mental health programs in all districts to increase the number of counselors, social workers, and psychologists in schools.
The American School Counselors Association recommends a ratio of 250 students to each counselor; however, in the 2009 -2010 school year, the average  ratio was 459 students to each  counselor.

14.  Develop character education curriculum and teaching materials to reduce the social stigma of mental illness.
Equip educators to support and educate parents and families to help them understand there is no shame in needing help to work through and process emotions, or in the emotions themselves, as well as the importance of accepting and seeking treatment for mental health issues.

15.  Provide direct mental health services for students in school.
• Give students access to counselors and other mental health services during school hours, and encourage students to seek additional help when necessary. Conduct periodic follow-up visits (for a specified length of time) with students receiving mental health care.
• Designate specified school personnel as “go to” people when problems arise. This may be a teacher, administrator, support staff, or other staff member with whom the student is comfortable talking/sharing.

16.  Increase professional development for educators and staff to identify at-risk behaviors and make mental health services available for at-risk students.
Districts also need to provide school personnel with access to counsel, as needed.

17.  Create a clear and supportive network in which parents, teachers, pediatricians and mental health  personnel can  communicate with each other.
Make parents and caregivers aware of available mental health services in the school and community through newsletters and email.

Ensure the Security of School Buildings
Keeping school buildings safe has many challenges. For instance, many schools were not designed and built with safety as a priority, and have uncontrolled and multiple access points. Frequently, school personnel and students do not understand the importance of adhering to safety policies. Parents and others who regularly visit feel they’re entitled to free and easy access.

18.  Partner with professional law enforcement agencies to develop security action plans and conduct quarterly school safety audits.
• Determine if doors and other access to buildings are secure, panic buttons and other security technology are functioning properly, and faculty, administration and School Resource Officers (SROs) are following established communication protocols.
• Write action plans in short, straightforward steps that are easily remembered.

19.  Make capital improvements to control access to facilities.
• Limit multiple points of entry.
• Install metal detectors in all schools. Many inner-city schools require their students, faculty and visitors to walk through a metal detector or submit to being scanned with a wand. To keep schools safe environments, this practice needs to be extended to all schools.
• Invest in real-time communication technology.
Educators should also have access to smartphones with text messaging capabilities. It would then be possible for anyone to send an instant, “mass” text message to the entire staff in the event of a crisis. This is better than giving information out over the PA system, in which case the perpetrators would also hear it.

20.  Fund at least one School Resource Officer for every school that wants one.
• SROs, preferably from the local police department, sheriff’s office or other career law enforcement officials would be in direct radio contact with the police dispatcher, thereby saving valuable time lost during a 911 call.

21.  Decrease average class size.
Mass shooters appear to choose their targets because of a personal connection to a place where people assemble and the number of bodies  per unit of space.

Strengthen Connections Between Schools and Communities
Educators and school staff frequently have little contact with and knowledge of the communities where their schools are located. Even students may know little about the community outside of their own neighborhoods. Many do not understand the positive feelings that can come from helping others before themselves. Community service is often frowned upon because it is seen as a punishment, not an opportunity for a student to build character and become an asset to the community.

22.  Building positive relationships between parents and the school.
Set a goal number of positive home contacts per week via phone, email, or postcard. Classroom websites and social media are additional ways to stay connected to parents or caregivers. 

23.  Create opportunities for staff and students to connect to community, and for the community to connect to the school.
• Encourage staff members and students to participate in positive activities in the community, so local residents see the school and students as assets, rather than as troublemakers or noisy kids, and students see themselves as valued.

24.  Require community service as a part of the educational experience for graduation, and integrate community service earlier into the career of students, to help build character and increased self-awareness.
Create community service groups. The repeated exposure to mentors and others in the community will create more meaningful relationships.  A mandated community service requirement for graduation will generate a deeper connection to desirable character traits and increased citizenship.

25.  Require every publicly educated 18-year-old to complete a term of national service.
Students are provided a free education for 12 years. In exchange, young people should be required to contribute to society in a tangible way. In addition to creating a common experience for all Americans, a national service requirement would serve as a checkpoint for assessing the mental health of all young Americans as they enter adulthood.

26.  Use Public Service Announcements (PSAs) to inform public opinion about the danger of guns and needed mental health services.
PSAs can be a vital tool in shaping public opinion about the danger of guns, high-capacity magazines and military-style weapons, and would help the public understand the need for mental health services.

Change the Debate about Guns in Schools
The high profile mass shootings in our nation in recent years have invigorated a national debate over gun violence. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School has put the issue of placing guns in schools to keep children safe at the forefront of educators’ minds. Many are asking about changes to gun laws, a stronger police presence, or arming teachers and administrative personnel in public schools. This is a highly polarizing issue and the writers of this report did not reach a unanimous position on this matter, but have presented those recommendations where they did find common ground.

27.  Support common-sense restrictions on firearms and firearm accessories (as currently proposed in federal and state legislation).
• Strengthen laws prohibiting possession of high-powered, military-style weapons and high capacity magazines. For example, lack of access to such destructive weapons could have decreased the number of lives lost before first responders arrived at Sandy Hook Elementary. The Newtown killer shot over 150 bullets in about four minutes. 
• Require registration and background checks for all firearms bought and sold, so that firearms are less likely to get into the hands of those who may use them inappropriately.
• Restrict access to high-capacity ammunition magazines and magazines.
• Do not allow sale or possession of semiautomatic “assault” rifles to private citizens.

28.  Increase the presence of School Resource Officers on school grounds.
• An SRO is not a total guarantee against violence occurring in a school. Columbine High School had an armed SRO on the premises in 1999, and Virginia Tech had an armed campus police force. Nonetheless, an SRO would provide peace of mind and a greater level of security.
• The challenge for districts is the enormous cost of employing an SRO or guard in every school in the United States, which is estimated to cost nearly a billion dollars. This is significant, particularly when it is generally acknowledged that public schools are already strained for resources. In addition, the funds required to guard every school in the United States may be more reasonably allocated to other safety measures.


We do not believe violence has a single cause, and likewise it is not going to have a single solution. As such, we advocate for a multifaceted approach to school safety.

We propose examining the conditions that both create violent individuals and make people vulnerable to acts of violence. We propose evaluating our school buildings and protocols to ensure we’re housing our students and staff in safe environments, and we’re properly equipped to respond if and when that environment becomes unsafe. We propose thoughtful consideration and research of the role of guns in schools, to ensure we achieve everyone’s goal—to make our schools safer. We propose putting character into the curriculum and valuing the whole child in order to foster students equipped to create a peaceful future. We propose working to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness and improving the availability of treatment to help heal those who need it most. We propose fostering connections between communities and schools, so there is mutual communication and appreciation.

Finally, we submit no single solution will be sufficient, but we will no longer tolerate ignorance of the issues that we educators are faced with every single day. Each year, teachers are presented with new initiatives aimed at improving students’ academic performance; we hope that the same energy, passion and resources (human, financial, etc.) are dedicated to improving student safety.




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