Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Running a School in a Post-Columbine World

Quick, where were you 11 years ago today?  Don't remember?  I'll bet you do.  April 20, 1999 may not stick in your mind, but the name of what happened that day almost certainly does:  Columbine.  Eleven years ago, 12 students and a teacher were killed by two other students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in a planned attack.  The shooters killed themselves at the end of the attack.

I was on maternity leave and caring for a sick husband the day of the Columbine shooting.  I remember watching for agonizing hours as authorities attempted to evacuate the building, not sure if the shooters were dead or alive or even if they might be trying to escape by evacuating with other students.  The picture of students running out of doors with their hands in the air is still very vivid in my mind.

Columbine was not the first school shooting of that era, but it was the deadliest.  Columbine was the shooting that became the shorthand for school shootings.  Within weeks, those of us who work in schools were using the word "Columbine" to mean a school shooting that was preplanned and directed at the school as a whole or a certain list of people, but not at one individual.  Every school started looking at whether it was ready for "a Columbine," and whether it was equipped to prevent one.

So what does it mean to be the Principal of a school in a post-Columbine era?  That really depends on the school, and it really depends on how much perspective you are able to put on the threat.  On the one hand, there are still those who view school violence as something that happens in inner cities and poor neighborhoods, despite all kinds of evidence that in fact major violence is much more likely to happen in suburbs and be perpetrated by the affluent.  To these folks, anything a rich, suburban school does for security is overkill.  On the other hand, there are those who regard every troubled kid not only as a potential shooter, but as an actual one, and go wild suspending and expelling kids who desperately need mental health treatment and are not the slightest bit violent.  These folks forget that the vast majority of kids who are troubled are no threat at all, and they completely ignore the fact that disgruntled employees, angry parents and estranged spouses and significant others are also a major source of violence in schools.

There is probably a level of school security which would make absolutely certain that no weapons ever get into a school building and that no violent adult does either.  There would still be fistfights, because you can't ban fists, but little else would be likely to happen.  So why don't we?

Mostly we don't turn our schools into fortresses because we want kids to be relaxed and comfortable.  Kids under perpetual lockdown are prisoners, not students.  They are reminded every second of every day that no one trusts them, and they often live down to that expectation.  What's more, any violence that might otherwise happen inside the school is put under pressure and will someday explode, and while that may happen outside the school it may also be worse than it would have been.  We would have done nothing to prevent it, because the only thing that truly prevents it is an environment where kids trust adults enough to tell them what's going on in their lives and tell an adult when a friend is doing something dangerous.

So, we try to pay attention to who is coming into the building.  We lock the secondary entrances.  We stop strangers in the hallways.  We practice "lockdowns," which are now required by Michigan law the same way fire drills and, this being the midwest, tornado drills are.  And the rest of the time, we go about our business -- helping children learn -- and make sure we're listening to them in the meantime.  I am reminded of a line from the movie Finding Nemo, when the overprotective Marlin says that he promised his son he'd never let anything happen to him.  Dory, the ditsy sidekick, responds,
You can't never let anything happen to him.  Then nothing would ever happen to him.
In the post-Columbine era, school safety and security is about balancing the need to be safe with the need, well, to be.


Colleen said...

I have no memory of where I was that day! Given your dates and descriptions, I, too, was caring for a baby, but I watched next to no TV. I'm glad, because I don't have any pictorial memories of those kids...only the information. I think I'm happier this way. Images are scarier than information, so I can look at the numbers, and know that it's very unlikely for my own kids to get hurt, and that the systems in place, like you describe, help. And that my kids' schools really encourage kids to talk to adults, just like yours does.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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