By Nancy Hahn
On June 18, the Obama administration released a Guide for Developing High Quality School Emergency Operations Plans. The report stirred up some talk, worried some, had parts most people agreed with, and parts that raised some uproar. It made people think and talk. Pretty much the job of any report, if you ask me. My view of the report and its recommendations were colored by an amazing experience I had last winter and spring. I was part of a group of over 100 teachers who posted our opinions online during the VIVA NEA Idea Exchange on creating safer schools. Eleven of those teachers, including me, without ever meeting in the same room, worked and shared and discussed and agreed and disagreed and compromised and wrote Sensible Solutions for Safer Schools. This report was prepared for and presented to both the president of NEA and Secretary of Education in Washington, DC, in April.
When I read the Obama administration’s report there were certainly recommendations I agreed with and others I didn’t, so much. More about that later. I am most excited and pleased about the process for planning that the report recommends. There are six steps outlined for developing and implementing a plan for your school. The first step was to form a collaborative team. The report details who should be part of that team – representatives of all stakeholders in the school. For me, the collaborative team is the most crucial part of the process of creating a plan. Believe me; it has taken me a long time to really accept the importance of collaboration. It is critical. If the teachers alone come up with a plan, they will love it. The administration won’t. Students won’t. Parents won’t. If parents create a plan; they will love it, but… I guess you see the pattern.
In a truly collaborative process everyone gets a chance to speak… and to be listened to. Listening in a group may mean inside my head I’m thinking, “How can you be a reasonable person and believe that?” But if I ask questions, I might learn that there are some good reasons for that thinking. Example: Our group of 11 teachers had widely differing views of the value and appropriate use of school resource officers. There were many questions. “You wouldn’t want them in an elementary school, right?” We discovered that some people were picturing scary, stern, unfriendly armed guards. Others thought of the police officer who interacts with children in conversations and activities. THAT resource officer becomes the positive face of the justice system to children who may have only a negative image. “Are you kidding, my 6-year-old loves Officer Jim! And knows she’s safe when he’s there.”
In a collaborative process, even though everyone won’t agree completely with every choice and decision, it’s okay. You understand that you have been listened to. Some of your ideas are included. There are reasons for all the choices made. Everyone has agreed to the final shape of the decisions and has a real stake in both the process and the product.
Now, about the White House recommendations that are getting the most talk – and one that isn’t. There are two big points of contention. First, the report does not recommend arming teachers. Period. Second, there is a recommendation that safety plans should include teachers considering confronting a shooter, if there are no other choices. I am not full of emotion about either of these recommendations. Both are for the most extreme of situations – an armed shooter in the school. Rare. Horrifying to imagine, important to consider, but really rare. Not arming teachers, I’m fine with that. Our group of 11 teachers could not come to agreement on the issue. There is passion and good reasoning on both sides. My feeling is when first responders arrive to take down the shooter, I don’t want the first person they see with a gun to be the math teacher. Confronting the shooter? Oh, gosh. At less than 5’2”, 106 pounds, and no training – I would not be useful using force. I would have to talk him out of his gun. I think the recommendation is designed to empower – to encourage staff and students to say “I will do something.” An Education Week article on the White House report discussed fighting when all else fails. I can buy that.
The piece of the report that isn’t receiving a lot of talk is about ‘school climate.’ School climate, the report explains, describes conditions that influence learning and feelings of safety and well-being. A positive school climate means students, parents, and all stakeholders feel the school is safe, fair, and does a good job educating students. Students and staff feel valued and respected. They are working together. They are listened to. In the very many schools where a school shooting was stopped before it happened, students cared about their school and found an adult to talk to. Young people talk. Really. They always talk. The student planning acts of violence talks. Really. Other students hear. If the school climate is not positive, students may view teachers and adults as ‘the other’. They may not feel they are listened to, so they don’t tell. If the school climate is positive, students share what they have heard. It leads me back to collaboration, again. Learning, teaching, creating a safe environment, getting involved, and growing… always a collaborative effort.
An abridged version of this post was published on the Commentary page of Education Week’s Aug. 21, 2013 edition.
Nancy Hahn teaches Language Arts, Read 180, and Writing Intervention to seventh and eighth graders in Jeffco, Colo. She has been teaching for 15 years. She was a member of the VIVA NEA Writing Collaborative.