School Safety Lessons Learned: From Cleveland to Newtown

Anyone who reads this regularly reads this blog knows that I have a friend by the name of Stephen Sroka.  As you read this, you will learn more about Steve and his brilliance and willingness to share and help children.  Feel free to contact him and tell him how much you have enjoyed reading this piece.

I dealt with school violence before it was fashionable and funded. To me, any child killed anywhere, anytime, is a huge tragedy. But decades ago, when children were killed in the inner city of Cleveland, you probably never heard about them. When the killings moved to suburbs such as Columbine, they became national news. The Newtown shootings shocked the U.S. like no other school violence. Now, school violence prevention is front-page news. Working with school safety for more than 30 years, I have tried to help schools and communities keep our youth safe and healthy so that they can learn more and live better. Here are several lessons that I have learned.

School violence can happen anywhere, but not here. After school shootings, I often heard “I cannot believe that it can happen here.” As we have learned, school violence can happen anywhere. But don’t be surprised after the next tragedy if someone says, “I cannot believe that it can happen here.” Denial is human.

Be prepared, not scared. Schools are not powerless. Awareness, education, and advocacy can help break down the attitude that it can’t happen here. Schools and districts need to have a school-community emergency plan of action in place for students, staff, and parents. It should be both practiced and proactive. Practice drills are crucial. Denial allows violence to grow unseen. Preparation allows violence to be dealt with as soon as it is seen.

Social media has changed how we communicate. Texts, tweets, and Facebook posts, which were not around at the time of the Columbine shootings, now offer instant information—and misinformation. Before problems occur, students need to be part of a dialogue with parents and educators about how schools can responsibly use social media to make schools safer. Social media may prove to be one of the best new tools to help keep our schools safe and parents informed, and to encourage students to take ownership of their schools and education.

Bullying is a symptom, and mental health is the issue. Bullying is a hot topic and often is blamed for many of the heinous actions that result in deaths. Bullying is serious and needs to be addressed. Some experts today do not see bullying as a cause, but rather as a symptom of a mental health problem. In fact, bullying is often mentioned as a cause for violence even when it is not, as with the Columbine shooting. Issues such as mental illness, depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, anger, family violence, and substance abuse are often at the root of such destructive behaviors.

Treat the illness, not the symptom. Many professionals would like to provide a comprehensive mental health approach for the schools, families, and community. Perhaps depression screening for all students may prove to be more helpful in identifying those at risk of hurting themselves as well as others. Some experts are now suggesting that teachers be taught mental health first aid to assist those in crisis. As we often see, hurt people hurt people; and the use of mental health professionals, such as school counselors, school social workers, school nurses, school psychologists, and school resource officers may enable us to help people help people.

Building relationships is key. We may need more metal detectors, but we must have more student detectors. The Secret Service found that school shooters usually tell other kids, but not adults. Adults trusted by kids may be given life saving information. We need to put a human face on school safety. Teaching to the heart, as well as, to the head to reach the whole child, not only academically, but also to the social, mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual dimensions, will help build a school and community of respect. Social emotional learning can help students learn in a safe environment. We often say to police officers that you have a more powerful weapon in your heart than in your holster to make your school safer. School safety needs to be built in, not tacked on. Students respond to people, not programs. You cannot mandate kindness, but you can nurture it by building relationships with communication, collaboration, cultural awareness, and caring. Words can kill, and words can give life. You choose.

When kindness fails, you need to be aggressive, forceful, and effective. An emergency plan of action needs to be in place, practiced and proactive. Teachers and students should be trained and allowed to practice lockdown drills. Parents need a low-tech and high-tech communication system for responding to school emergencies. Gone are the days of Columbine when police waited for hours to enter the school. Today police and community emergency response teams are trained for active shooter/rapid response, to take out the shooter ASAP.

Healing is personal. Schools need to be prepared to deal with the consequences of violence immediately and long after the incident. Individuals react to grief in a wide range of ways, and there is no best way to grieve. Where some people need to process the grief immediately, others need to be left alone. Grief has no specific timeline for everyone.

School safety has entered uncharted waters. When I started working in school safety decades ago, the weapon of choice for school violence was a box cutter or knife, now it is automatic weapons. What will be next? The unthinkable is now doable, and probably unpreventable. The Newtown shootings raise disturbing issues and questions. Controversial approaches, which once would have been considered ridiculous, are now being debated, such as arming teachers and having teachers and students take out the shooter by any means possible. Guns, metal detectors, mental health issues, zero tolerance, and other emotional issues make for complex and difficult decisions. A voice of reason is often lost in the heat of hysteria.

There are no guarantees, only intelligent alternatives. Today we are better prepared to deal with and prevent school violence than we were in the earlier days in Cleveland and Columbine. There still is no 100-percent guarantee that our schools will be free from violence. There are no easy solutions, but there are intelligent alternatives to reduce the risks. It’s time for all schools to explore these alternatives. For some,

Stephen Sroka, PhD, is an adjunct assistant professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, and president of Health Education Consultants. He has worked on school violence issues worldwide for more than 30 years. Connect with Sroka on his website or by e-mail at [email protected].