Newtown, Connecticut is a hamlet of 25,000 people, known previously to few outside of Connecticut except those who may know that Olympian Bruce Jenner and ER star Anthony Edwards are from this affluent town. Two weeks ago Newtown became Columbine’s elementary school counterpart and forever etched into the archives of history. As a Principal charged with the safety of elementary school children, the occurrence was as chilling as any single event in my career.
It’s odd and perhaps typically American (or just human) to react to a extremely random act as if we have now reached a whole new juncture. Before December 14 we thought our schools were relatively safe but now we feel the pressure to act swiftly to make our schools safe again based on this tragedy. While we know that the advent of modern media forces us to be increasingly reactive, one silver lining is that we will aggressively examine our safety procedures in the coming weeks.
There are three categories of safety measures related to the recent Newtown tragedy as I see it on this December 27, 2012: 1.) Adjustments of current safety practices, 2.) building a strong school culture, and 3.) major structural changes.
After the Columbine tragedy in 1999, schools across America adjusted or even overhauled many of their safety and security practices. Newtown is another call to adjust. Nearly every school now requires visitor passes and only one entrance open during the day. Many schools have implemented a buzz-in system and practically every new school building project includes this arrangement with a keyless card apparatus. Staff are reminded to ask any visitor without a pass to head back to the office. Faculty are trained to look for “off behavior” in school visitors. Walkie-talkies are abundant throughout the building and on the playground to facilitate communication. Lock-down and evacuation drills are organized yearly. Staff meetings are held at regular intervals and at unconventional times to update staff on particular warnings or modifications to safety and security practices.
On a recent Diane Rehm radio show, the President of National School Safety Services, Kenneth Trump, stated that the tragedy in Newtown could have been much worse if teachers and administrators were not as well prepared as they actually were. He cited the staff’s adherence to the Responsive Classroom philosophy as being a reason for the strong school culture and relative safety in the building. If children feel safe and trust their teachers, actions during a crisis are facilitated much more smoothly. It’s likely that scores of children’s lives were saved as the result of the work the administration and faculty put into building a positive school culture.
The first two categories mentioned above are win-win. Adjustments to already safe school environments and increasing positive school culture only enhances the life of each child and adult. Major structural changes such as permanent buzz-in systems, cameras, and metal detectors may provide greater safety or at least the illusion of safety, but they certainly have a chilling affect on the culture of each school. Some schools will even train teachers in how to use guns as a way to make their classrooms “safer”. That option is certainly not on the table in the town I serve.
Every article I read, every interview I hear, every parent email I receive, and every person I encounter informs my opinion on all matters – most recently in the area of safety and security. I’m sure my viewpoint will be slightly different a month from now. I will continue to listen and synthesize what I learn while working with my colleagues to balance the positive, friendly neighborhood school atmosphere we have with a need to keep the children and adults at Harold Martin School safe.
In the meantime, colleagues such as Charles Dumais, the Principal of Newtown, Connecticut High School, is back at work, forever changed by the loss of his colleague, Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung. Please check out Patrick Larkin’s tribute to Dawn as he examined her Twitter feed and found her to be a connected, progressive, and passionate Principal. We have much to learn from her and many miles to go before we figure out all of the lessons of Newtown.