By Superintendent Art Rainwater
The three tragic school shootings that occurred this fall made us aware of the unique place that school occupies in our minds. Each of us felt the trauma that accompanied the violation of that place that we hold special.
School is the one common experience we all have. School is a place for friendships to grow and to learn the skills needed for adulthood. It is a place where we should feel safe, both physically and emotionally.
As tragic and traumatic as school shootings are, they are rare. It is important that we prepare to prevent violence in any form, and react immediately and strongly when it does occur. However, the real safety issue in schools is much more common and insidious. The often unspoken and hidden safety issue that must be addressed is emotional safety.
Children are much more likely to be emotionally damaged than they are to be physically harmed. Bullying and harassment in all of its forms carry lasting affects.
It is easy to reminisce about the good old days and say “there has always been a bully on the playground”. Because there has always been harassment doesn’t make it right, then or now. We know more today about children and the effects that everyday interactions with peers and adults have on their adult persona, both positive and negative.
It is clear that we need to teach students how to respect differences and accept people for the value that each of them contributes. It is less obvious, but more important, that schools ensure that our adult interactions and institutional systems promote these same ideals.
Historically, school has been a place where rules and punishments were the norm for dealing with misbehavior. Most of us hold that as the expectation and the standard. It shouldn’t be. We have an obligation to our future adults to assure that we teach, using every skill that we have, what good behavior looks and feels like. Instruction in behavior should be an on-going part of our educational mission.
The one thing that is a given is that most children will test the limits of the boundaries we set. That is a necessary part of growing up. The key to creating a positive place for students to learn is how we react to those tests.
Rather than a punitive response only, we must help the student accomplish three things:
- Gain an understanding of what he/she did and who was affected and how he/she might have handled the situation differently,
- Provide restitution to those harmed by his/her actions,
- Return to good standing in his/her community with a new set of behavior skills.
If we, along with children’s families, can accomplish these three things, students will grow into adulthood
with the interpersonal and social skills to function effectively as productive and contributing citizens.
After all, that is one of the most important goals of public education, and where we fail in that mission we fail not just the student but all of us.