Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Musing about safe schools

In an early fall filled with dramatic incidents of school violence, safe schools seem a dream. From my location ten miles down the road from the shooting of eleven Amish girls in a small school house set in an idyllic landscape, I am wondering whether we truly understand what it would mean to make schools “safe” and what it would take to get there.

Not surprisingly, policymakers are poised to step in and fix the problem. In a rush to “give an illusion that things will be safer” (as Dewey Cornell at the University of Virginia put it in this week’s Education Week), policymakers offer the things they have at their disposal: statewide regulation and money for security systems. Schools will lock doors, hire security officers, install radios, train staff, and monitor all entrances.

It is not clear that these measures are needed or that they will help. UVA Professor Cornell reminds us that this kind of horrific violence remains extremely rare, that a school might experience something like this once every 12,000 years. Does it make sense to take extreme precautions that impede open access to schools? And will turning schools into maximum-security-institutions-in-reverse have the desired effect? Will it prevent school shootings? As Ed Week (October 11, 2006) reports, the student who shot and killed six classmates in Pearl (Mississippi) High School in 1997 later told investigators that a locked door or a metal detector would not have stopped him. In a 2005 student shooting at Red Lake Indian Reservation in Minnesota, the first person to get shot was the school security officer.

While significant attention is being paid to violence in schools, there are some aspects of the school shootings that are not getting enough scrutiny. Consider (as Bob Herbert does in Sunday’s New York Times) that shooters are nearly always white males, adolescent or adult, typically students rather than intruders. Their hostages and targets are typically girls or young women. Misogyny, it seems, is alive and well. School shootings are high profile ways the way to dramatize sex-based resentment. This is not a simple problem to be solved but a function of human relations in our broader society. How do we even think about a response that is nuanced and sensitive enough to address this deeper issue?

What does it mean to prevent school violence? What will it take?

It will mean paying careful, thoughtful attention to what we do know about how and why a human being will go to a school intent on using a gun (that it’s targeted rather than impulsive, that others often know of the attacker’s plans, that the attacker feels bullied or disrespected, that the attacker has struggled with loss, that the attacker has access to weapons). These observations come from a National Threat Assessment Center report and are listed in Ed Week. It also means admitting what we don’t – and perhaps can’t --know (that the shooters present no profile useful in distinguishing them from the rest of the population and that they rarely make prior threats).

It may well mean looking for inspiration in unlikely places and accepting models that counter our immediate intuitions about how to respond. Much has been made of the Amish response to last week’s shootings. The very first reports of violence in this non-violent community were accompanied by the word that the families of the dead and injured forgave the man responsible. Perhaps our first response to violence should be opening rather than closing the doors of hearts and schools.

But practically speaking, what would this look like? Even the Amish who stunned the world with their offer of forgiveness – and who typically divorce themselves from “English” living around them -- have turned to outside consultants to train teachers in an emergency, and – to the surprise of experts – are considering “arming” those teachers with cell phones.

I do not write here to specify action but to remind all of a dangerous tendency in our thinking. We rush to fix the problem we can fix readily without engaging in what Dewey famously called “the method of intelligence.” We short-circuit the moments of interpreting, of formulating possible courses of action, and anticipating the consequences of potential responses. By doing that, we fail to recognize the problem. We let the do-able define the problem; we don’t take the time to let the problem reveal itself.

Sometimes it helps to focus on concrete examples when we are trying to navigate the shoals of immediacy and thoughtfulness, of the urgent “real” and the interesting but less immediate “ideal,” of the compelling desire to lock-down and the belief that an open and forgiving heart is the only path to ending violence. I can offer one such example among schools that have instituted partnerships with local police in a thoughtfully planned effort to prevent all kinds of trouble. Penn Manor High School (Millersville, PA) now proudly claims as a de facto staff member a local township police officer. Jason Hottenstein is listed on the Administrative website as a “school resource officer.” He reports to work at the high school every day though he remains an officer in good standing on the police force. (School district and municipality contribute equally to his compensation.)

Officer Hottenstein rarely appears in uniform, but he is a constant presence. He is part security guard, part counselor, part legal advisor, part “bad cop,” part “good cop,” part trouble-shooter -- but wholly an adult staff member who understands that security involves relationships with students over time. His presence in the building is a constant reminder – to students and staff -- that security involves the entire community.

Not every police officer could manage what this intelligent, caring man does. But that does not mean that other schools should not look carefully at the example set here. This partnership between school and municipality, between educator and office, is a crystal clear example of a district that has taken issues of security seriously without sacrificing the attention to relation that makes security meaningful.


A. G. Rud said...

Barb, this is thoughtful and nuanced, thanks for taking the time. What efforts have been made toward a Deweyan method of intelligence in the Amish school killings within the immediate community? I know that the Amish expressed forgiveness and solace to the wife of the "English" perpetrator. Aside from that astounding act, I have not heard much else...yes, the school was bulldozed and the ground seeded over. Has there been dialogue between the Amish and the "English"?

Barbara Stengel said...


At this point (to the surprise of many), the Amish have consulted with officials in the local public school district, seeking information about experts in disaster response. It is my understanding that the same consultant who assisted at Columbine has been in this area over the past two weeks and will be back for follow-up work with children and teachers. They seem intent on doing what they can to prevent a similar occurrence.

The school house was leveled at 4:00 AM one morning last week with the help of many local "English" (especially those with bulldozers!) and the field on which it sat has been seeded. Local churches, civic organizations and even groups of bikers have sponsored fund-raising activities to pay for funeral expenses and medical care as well as for the construction of a new school house and the costs of the consultants and mental health personnel who are providing support.

There is a significant dialogue going on, but it is quite localized to the specific small community in which this occurred. What is publicly visible is that the fund raising is being coordinated largely by the Mennonite Central Committee (Mennonites are a close "relative" of the Amish in the anabaptist tradition). And the Lancaster Amish elders have set up their own oversight committee to insure that all donations are used appropriately.

Those who respect the Amish community are giving them the space to mourn, allowing any further dialogue to develop out of common concerns for the safety of children. It is my perception that they have been extraordinarily forthcoming, making regular public statements of thanks and prayer -- including to the newspapers. This is not typical.

I do not know whether they are continuing conversations with the local district regarding shared concerns for safety, etc.

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