Heads Speak for Themselves (January 2013)
Every few years, my school conducts a market research survey to better understand what parents seek in their selection of a school for their children. In each and every survey, “safety” appears near or at the top of the list. This is understandable, given all that we read about violence in schools – from bullying and harassment to school shootings.
In the first two years of my tenure at my current school, I’ve paid a lot of attention to campus safety. I’ve heightened the security presence at our main entrance; improved the fencing that surrounds our entire campus; installed security cameras to monitor most of the exterior areas on our campus; trained faculty about how the school should and would respond to an active shooter on campus; reviewed, enhanced and drilled our “lockdown” and “shelter in place” procedures; enlisted the help of a member of the Albuquerque Police Department to review safety and security issues on campus on a weekly basis; become more vigilant about locking all campus gates during the school day; and implemented an emergency alert system to notify parents about crises on campus. I have more initiatives in the works, from increasing the size of our security staff to installing interior security cameras.
I didn’t become a Head of School because of my passion for safety and security matters, but I recognize that it’s among the most important aspects of my job. The recent shootings in Newtown, CT have focused national attention, once again, on school safety, and, in particular, the problem of active shooters. Unfortunately, our nation doesn’t have a good track record of taking legislative action following school shootings.
The horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School have captured the nation’s attention because of the large number of deaths and young age of the victims (26, excluding the shooter, including 20 small children). Sadly, this tragedy is one of a long, steady string of school shootings. In the last decade, excluding this most recent tragedy, there have been at least 28 shootings on school and college campuses in 15 different states, 23 of which resulted in the killing of 85 innocent victims.
This time, however, something feels different. There is a heightened concern and energy that surround this recent tragedy. The big question is where that will lead us. In the past, gun violence has sometimes led the government to take action. A recent article in The Washington Post identified a number of examples. These included the National Firearms Act of 1934, following the “Tommy gun” era of the gangsters of the 1920’s; the Gun Control Act of 1968, following the assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.; and the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, following the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
A lot of organizations and individuals are making suggestions about how to improve school safety. The NRA, according to a CNN report, plans to fund a group charged with developing a plan to place armed guards in schools around the country. Legislators in at least four states have suggested providing guns to teachers. As someone who has spent over 25 years working in a wide range of schools – public, private, urban, rural, large and small – I cannot fathom how more guns on any school campus will make our children safer. These suggestions alarm me, and I believe them to be misguided.
On the other hand, there are at least ten members of Congress – Republicans and Democrats – who have received high marks from the NRA and who have said, in recent days, that they are willing to take a fresh look at gun control legislation. This suggests to me that we have a unique opportunity.
Several days ago, I was discussing the Sandy Hook incident with an acquaintance who has worked in schools for many, many years. She asked me whether I thought that concerned parents, teachers and school leaders might not come together to address school violence in a grassroots way. She mentioned Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), an organization that was started by a few women in 1980 and that ultimately changed the way our nation thinks about drunk driving. About the same time, I read a blog entry by Brian Rosenberg, the President of Macalester College, in which he makes a pledge never to support a political candidate who does not support a ban on assault weapons. Rosenberg recognizes that it’s a small step, but he notes that we “need to begin somewhere.”
As school leaders, we are charged with ensuring the safety of our communities, and we know what makes sense. This is a time to come together and be heard.Steve Albert is Head of School at Sandia Preparatory School (NM). He can be reached at email@example.com.