Home > Uncategorized > Restoring Confidence that Schools are Safe Havens Will Require Citizens to Answer Tough Questions

Restoring Confidence that Schools are Safe Havens Will Require Citizens to Answer Tough Questions

March 23, 2018

Based on reports included in this morning’s Google Alert on Public Education, there were eight schools closed in the Detroit, Michigan region: five in the Warren area and three in Hamtramck. In all cases the schools closed because of threats posted on social media, threats like “tomorrow we will shoot up the school” or that an explosion will occur. Both traditional public high schools and charter schools were affected by the threats, which administrators and police both took seriously.

Having served as a high school administrator for six years and a Superintendent for 29 years, I experienced several bomb threats, witnessed countless scuffles in hallways, and heard reports from schools when major incidents occurred or were threatened at schools or at school events. But after Columbine and with the advent of social media, the threats became more difficult to address. In  the late 70s when I was a school-based administrator, teachers and administrators often got wind of disputes that happened outside of school that could result in fights during the school day. As the Assistant Principal I could then informally monitor the students or groups of students throughout the day and make a point to check in with them to determine if their problems would spill into the school. And unlike threats to “shoot up the school”, it was possible for administrators to determine if a bomb was placed in the school by inspecting the classrooms and lockers, even if that required a 15-20 minute evacuation of the building and the engagement of the local fire department.

But after Columbine, when two disaffected students with high-powered guns entered a school that had surveillance cameras and a guard at one entrance and killed many classmates, threats took on a different cast. Unlike a bomb threat, that can be resolved by performing a thorough inspection of the building, an anonymous threat to “shoot up the school” cannot be ignored. And unlike the threats we received in the 70s through the turn of the last century that came in on telephone lines, identifying the source of the threats is far more complicated when they come through social media sources. A student at our local high school, Hanover High, for example, alerted the Principal to a threat in the bio of an Instagram account with the handle “hanoverhighshooting.” When parents learned of the threat via an email the Principal sent home explaining that police would be on duty all day to ensure the safety of their children, many nevertheless came to the school to get their children. After investigating in coordination with other police forces, the Hanover Police determined that the threat was made by a 14 year old Canadian female who had no connection whatsoever to the school. But in the context of shootings that occur far too regularly, administrators have a responsibility to report an anonymous instagram handle to parents even though there is no way to determine if the threat is actionable. A “shoot up the school” threat, because it cannot be defused or easily sourced, leads to an undifferentiated fear that cannot be readily eased. The “solutions” to this undifferentiated fear take the form of “hardening” schools as “targets” and severely punishing any of those who threaten schools. Unfortunately neither of these “solutions” will resolve the problem of using social media to make threats or assure parents that such threats are actionable.

If a school becomes a fortress by installing more surveillance cameras, hiring more armed guards, placing metal detectors at each entry point, or installing better locking systems and bullet-proof glass, the reality is that a disaffected individual who is familiar with the operation of the school and who owns of an “assault weapon” will still be able to penetrate the fortress and “shoot up the school”. And even a fortress school will need to heed anonymous threats posted on social media. How, then, can schools mitigate the undifferentiated fear that grips many students and parents?

First and foremost, schools need to ensure that every child who attends is known by at least one caring adult who will look out for them and they need to find a way to identify and connect with disaffected students. To accomplish this broad goal, the mission of schools needs to extend beyond academics and into social well-being. Are we willing to impose that role on schools? 

Second, the community needs to provide the schools with the resources needed to accomplish the broadened mission set forth in the first step. A teacher who has a large number of students to oversee cannot connect with each of them and may not be able to get to know any of them in depth. A faculty that does not have time for group planning cannot compare notes on the children they teach to determine if a particular student is not connected with any adult in the school. And a school that lacks counseling services cannot intervene when teachers identify a student who appears to be drifting away from classmates. Smaller class sizes and more social services requires more funding and an acknowledgment that the mission of the school extends beyond the delivery of instruction in the classroom. Are we willing to pay higher taxes to fund these needs? 

Third, parents need to closely monitor the information their children are transmitting and receiving on social media. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, we had one television set and one telephone in our home. That made it relatively easy for my parents to monitor my media intake and who I was communicating with, and how I was spending my time. As a pre-internet era parent in the 70s through the 90s it was relatively easy to monitor my daughters’ viewing habits and access to the telephone. Clearly parents today, when virtually all children have smart phones and internet access, have a much more daunting challenge. But parents can help schools by limiting the time children spend online and limiting what children do on line. Are parents prepared to set and enforce boundaries on the use of social media? 

Fourth, we need to accept the reality that we need to impose some kind of limitations on the acquisition and possession of guns. Clearly the second amendment provides the right for every citizen to bear arms. But such a right should have reasonable limits. For example, it makes no sense that individuals who cannot board airplanes because they are on no-fly lists can acquire as many weapons as they wish. Nor does it make sense that someone who has an active restraining order or someone who has threatened suicide would have access to any weapons. Are we willing to set any limits on the purchase and retention of dangerous weapons? 

Fifth, we need to find a means for parents and, perhaps, schools to monitor the on-line activities of children. While this has chilling overtones, it is clear that without such a mechanism for monitoring online behavior it possible for children and adolescents to use social media in destructive and intimidating fashion. Schools are increasingly expected to intervene in cases involving on-line bullying, which can take the form of intimidating costs, posts that spread malicious gossip, and posts that reinforce group activities that reinforce hateful behavior. We need to ask this tough question of each other: If schools are responsible for dealing with the fall out from online bullying, at what point should they be able to deal with problems before they become intractable and major? Are we willing to sacrifice the privacy of our children and students to limit bullying, intimidation, and threats to schools? 

And lastly, we need to accept the reality that no degree of “hardening” will ensure the safety of children in school. There is no institution in our culture that is more hardened that prisons… and there is no atmosphere more frightening than prison. Prisons have secure entries, bullet proof windows, armed guards, sophisticated door locks, 24/7 surveillance, and intensive training on how to deal with dangerous intruders. Too many solutions to the school shootings are leading us in the direction of “protecting” students the same way we protect ourselves from those who are incarcerated. This leads to the toughest question of all: Are we willing to accept that there is no way to ensure the total and complete safety of children in school? 

We are facing some tough problems brought on us by the unrestricted availability of weapons and the unregulated use of social media. What trade-offs are we willing to make to ensure that our children can attend school safely… and that we can attend church, our workplaces, dances, movies, and large gatherings in safety?


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