As anyone who has conducted even a moderate review of the literature knows, bullying has a tremendous impact on our students and the ability of schools to teach. The pain, suffering, anguish and other negative effects of school bullying not only have a significant effect on school safety, but on school climate, culture and academic achievement as well.
We know that many school children are truant from school each day, we have seen far too many instances of students who commit suicide at and away from school due to bullying and we have many examples of students who drop out of school due to bullying. When combined with the rare instances where victims of severe bullying take hostages at school or carry out school shootings, these negative and sometimes dire situations add up to a significant school safety issue.
Whether operating from a standpoint of school crisis prevention or from the standpoint of enhancing academic achievement it makes sense to evaluate the frequency and severity of bullying in any school and then to address the determined risk level appropriately. Schools are often limited in fiscal resources to address bullying, emergency preparedness and other school safety issues. Fortunately, there are many excellent free resources for American schools.
One example of this in the area of bullying prevention are the resources available from the United States Department of Education on bullying, including the Stop Bullying Now Campaign available to schools at no cost from the United States Government. This program has received excellent reviews from a number of experts in the field of bullying prevention and is worth consideration for schools that lack funds to purchase evidence based bullying prevention programs such as the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. Effective bullying prevention strategies are an excellent way to improve school safety, school climate, school culture and to enhance student achievement.
March has been a busy month for school safety incidents. The shock of the tragic school shooting in Chardon, Ohio has caused a larger number of school violence incidents to be reported in the media than is normally the case. As with other many other tragic high profile multiple victim school shootings, many incidents that do not ordinarily garner attention in the national news are making headlines. The positive side of this increased media coverage is that it does help to remind students, parents and parents that school safety is an important topic and that we should all do our part to avert tragedies. All the same, these incidents are a bitter pill for those that have to endure them.
One report that received national coverage today was a terrible murder suicide at Episcopal High School in Jacksonville, Florida. Early reports indicate that a Spanish teacher returned to the school with a semi-automatic rifle concealed in a guitar case and shot the school’s headmistress fatally before taking his own life after he was terminated this morning. Over the years there have been a number of homicides, sexual assaults, hostage situations, deadly fires and other major crisis events in non-public schools around the nation. The deadly shooting at an Amish School in Pennsylvania is one of the more well-known examples.
These tragic situations serve more than adequate notice that non – public schools must also consider all four phases of school crisis planning as relevant and important to their successful operation. Though it is truly sad that any educators must contend with these types of hazards, it is a reality in education across the globe.
Our hearts go out to the members of the Episcopal High School family in their time of difficulty.
One of the cool things about what we do at Safe Havens is that we get to see so many different approaches to school safety, security and emergency preparedness as we visit schools across the United States and abroad. I have seen better school security practices in some schools I visited by donkey drawn cart and dugout canoe in the Mekong Delta than I have seen in some public and independent schools in of the most affluent parts of the country. That said, American schools generally do tend to do a better job in many areas of school safety in contrast to what we see in South Africa, the U.K., Canada, Bolivia and other places we have worked.
While schools in the U.K. typically have far better access control than the majority of their U.S. counterparts billions of dollars of federal funding, research, a steady stream of frightening media coverage following major incidents like Monday’s deadly school shooting in Chardon, Ohio have created a lot of positive change in American school safety. Sadly, we see dangerous situations in schools on a daily basis and still encounter the pervasive “it can’t happen here” mentality from school employees, students and parents”. While people in reality know deep down that a major school crisis event such as a tornado, fire, earthquake or active shooter situation could occur in their community, they often do not seem to face these types of risks as part of the reality of possibilities on a more practical day to day. This is why we so often see such massive changes in safety, security and emergency preparedness after an event occurs. Once injuries and deaths have actually occurred, people typically begin to assign a much greater priority to safety than they did prior to the incident, regardless of how much they had in place prior to the event.
One big advantage we have in the United States, Canada and in a number of other developed countries is the ability to see what our neighbors are doing to improve school safety to get ideas for improvement. It is extremely common for us to find an exceptional practice in one school system or non-public school that is not in use ten miles away at another school in a nearby town. With public school systems, it is extremely common to see a practice in place in one school that would benefit all schools in the district if it were implemented at those schools. This can even crop up in litigation when a school safety expert witness points out that a practice that is in place in several schools in the district would likely have averted a tragedy had it been also used in a school where an incident has not occurred.
Taking the time to visit other schools in the region can help spread new and effective ideas effectively. Many of these ideas are inexpensive, practical and effective school safety solutions.
As with every multiple victim school shooting in recent years, media coverage of Monday’s school shooting in Chardon, Ohio has been at times heavily focused on what warning signs might have been ignored or missed prior to the shooting. I caution people to be careful as they evaluate information on these situations from the media as we have already seen many instances of inaccurate information in this case as we have with past targeted acts of school violence.
In his excellent book Columbine author Dave Cullen’s extensive research into the actual occurrences clearly counters the many myths that arose out of that tragedy. His book refutes the still common claim that bullying played a major role in the event, that the shooters were “loners” and that the infamous “trenchcoat mafia” never existed. At the same time, each of these events does and should make us ask the probing questions relating to actions, words, social network communications, behaviors and other observable indicators that have often when detected, helped to avert tragedy.
The near miss at East High School in Green Bay, Wisconsin is a case in point. Alertness, connectivity between students and staff and superb collaboration between school and law enforcement officials prevented a great tragedy at that well run school where people are connected to other people to a high degree. To paraphrase how one United States Department of Education official put it – we need people detectors in our schools.
Working in a school district where we stopped multiple planned school shootings, one planned school bombing and a planned double suicide deeply ingrained the importance of school employees being structurally as well as personally connected to the students they have chosen to serve. Fortunately, school officials today have considerably better information than their counterparts did when the per capita school homicide rate was much higher in the 1970 to 1980 time period. This most recent tragedy serves as yet another reminder that terrible acts of school violence can occur in great schools in nice communities.