As we approach the end of the school year, our thoughts often go to celebrations, moving up ceremonies and the summer vacation about to begin. We have flashbacks to our time in school. As parents, it’s also a time to reflect on how quickly time is passing as our little ones are so little anymore. The normal pattern for the end of year has been atypical as two years of COVID precautions required many of our traditions to be altered. The end of the 2021-2022 school year was supposed to be a return to normal. The normal we hoped for has now been interrupted by the tragic events in Uvalde and Buffalo. Coupled with the seemingly never-ending news of threats made against schools has educators, parents, and communities on edge and searching for answers.
During my education career, I served as a science teacher, coach, principal and over ten years as a school superintendent. During that time, my school districts spent countless hours preparing for the worst-possible scenarios. As a student, we never thought about such things. Now, students practice lockout and lockdown drills like we used to practice fire drills. We prepare action plans for each of our buildings, coordinate with local authorities, hold tabletop drills and train our staff. We have added safety features to our buildings through capital projects that include, but are not limited, to two-door entryways, camera systems and hardened classroom doors. When a parent asked me if our schools were safe, I would reply that we do everything we can to make them as safe as possible. What I have wanted to say, but know it would be misunderstood, is that while we plan for every possibility, there are far too many factors outside our control to insure 100% safety for everyone that walks into our buildings. But why is my second statement more accurate than the first?
Since the Columbine School shooting in 1999, federal, state, and local authorities have spent an incredible amount of resources trying to predict and stop other school shootings. The Secret Service has been particularly involved in this effort as their main mission is to conduct threat assessments related to the protection detail. When learning about the Secret Service, one repeated comment has always stood out to me. When asked if they could stop someone from attacking the President, the ability to do so was dependent on getting to the threat before it happened. In other words, if someone has the means and willingness to give up their own life to conduct the attack, it makes it near impossible for them to react in real time. The vast majority of their work is in planning, uncovering, and investigating possible threats. Why is this not the approach we take when it comes to our schools, students, and staff?
Before I explain further, please do not take any of my thoughts and comments as putting blame an any one person or entity. Please do not take any of my thoughts and comments as excusing the actions of those attacking communities and schools. There is absolutely no reason that could justify such evil actions. This is not about changing current gun policies even though every possible solution should be investigated. What I am trying to do explain is that we all can do more to prevent such horrible events from occurring.
Many, if not most, mass shooters have at least one thing in common: They tend to be loners that are disconnected from society. The 18-year-old that came to Buffalo to target members of a community just because of the color of their skin fits this description. The attack on Tops Market on Jefferson Avenue was fifteen miles from my home, reminding us that these horrible events can happen anywhere. The 18-year-old that walked into Robb Elementary School has been described in the same manner. While we may never know why each of them and others commit such horrible acts of violence, we can try and learn from them, to hopefully prevent future attacks.
In both incidents, law enforcement or armed security was involved, yet unable to stop either attack. This goes back to the comment from the Secret Service about stopping an attack as it begins. It is near impossible to do so. In almost every instance, someone was aware of the attacker’s prior comments or felt uneasy about the person, including during formative years.
During my time in education and now as I travel the country speaking and working with schools, I always ask those in the audience, did they ever get a gut feeling or just knew based on their experience, that a student was going to struggle and likely be unsuccessful. To this day, I always get a positive affirmation up to and including near universal agreement. If a Kindergarten teacher or a principal or a counselor has a gut feeling that the child is going to struggle, why aren’t we being more intentional with interventions to help that child find success? It’s like when an educator would ask me if they can retain a student, despite the research overwhelmingly saying it does not work. I always ask the question, “so how is that child’s experience going to be different next year than it was this year?” Usually, they can’t answer the question or state that the student will go through the same material with a different teacher. We can’t get better results if we keep ding the same thing over and over again.
We know when a child is connected to their school or community, through a mentor/teacher/adult or activity, he or she is significantly more likely to be successful. While it takes time, we can simply use a chart listing all of our students in the school and have each adult put a mark next to the names that they are in regular contact with and have a relationship with. The reason I use ‘adult’ is that it does not have to be a teacher. Anyone at the school can build meaningful connections with students including teacher aides, custodians, food service workers and bus drivers. All it takes is a willingness to spend some time, whether 10 seconds or 10 minutes, to say hi, ask them how they are doing, ask them what they are interested in. Every single time I have used this exercise or seen it done, there are always students with no marks next to their names. These are the children we must intentionally build a relationship with. There are other ways to uncover those that are secretly alone and/or hurting. The importance is not the tool used but intentionally find a champion for every child.
Identification of disengaged students is a critical first step, but we must go farther. No matter how positive the school culture, there will be those that fall through the proverbial cracks. That’s why creating systems to close those gaps and catch those that fall through the cracks is absolutely necessary. The next step includes interventions such as peer development, counseling, mindfulness, and mental health awareness. Anyone who has tried to find a mental health practitioner can tell you that the wait is long with so few in the field. The problem is only going to get worse as retirements grow due to aging baby boomers and those leaving from COVID fatigue. This is where advocacy to legislators and health organizations becomes necessary. If we are going to grow the number of mental health professionals, we need to create a pipeline from our secondary schools through certification. Working with federal, state, and postsecondary educational institutions provides an opportunity to create programs and funding resources to greatly impact the future of our current and future students.
Complex problems require multiple solutions, especially when we are working with people who are distinctly unique from one another. We are unique genetically and we are unique in our individual experiences. While we might have similar experiences, no two people have had the same exact life experiences. That requires us to create systems and processes that allow for the individuality of each child we are working to support. Therein lies the power of viewing the challenges we face through an SEL lens. We honor each person’s experiences while intentionally addressing their challenges. If we focus on a preventive approach, and put our resources towards our priorities, we can alter the current paradigm of violence.
Dr. Richard Hughes holds a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Allegheny College, is an Alden Scholar, and a Master of Science in Biology from State University of New York (SUNY) Fredonia. He earned a Doctorate in Education (Ed.D.) in Educational Leadership from Northcentral University in Prescott, Arizona.
Dr. Hughes served as a Superintendent of Schools for over 10 years at school districts ranging in size from 360 to 5,000 students, rural to suburban, and was named the 2017 Superintendent of the Year by the New York State Association for Computers and Technologies in Education and selected as a Lexington Education Leadership Award Fellow in 2015. He maintains membership in a number professional organizations, including the National Society of Leadership and Success and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Outside of work, he is an avid martial arts practitioner, earning a black belt in two different styles.
To contact Dr. Hughes, go to his website, https://www.drrichardhughes.com/, or contact him on social media via Twitter (@DrRichardHughes), Facebook (@RichardHughesEdD) or LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/richard-hughes-edd/).
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