Billions are being spent annually to secure schools against violence, but virtually nothing is being spent to prevent school violence. Why?
The Education Week Research Center’s Safety and Social-Emotional Learning National Survey revealed a profound disconnect between what teachers think would make schools safer and what school administrators do to assuage safety concerns.
Of the 700 PreK -12 teachers surveyed in April of 2019 on the question of which has the biggest impact on making schools safer, teachers were most likely to suggest school counselors, psychologists, other mental health professionals, social and emotional learning programs and strategies to reduce isolation and improve student sense of belonging.
Towards the middle and bottom of the list were school hardening procedures such as cameras, active shooter drills and reinforced doors.
However, schools are more likely to fund active shooter drills than SEL. This disconnect reveals a cynicism on the part of administrators as well as a profound misunderstanding about how to prevent school violence from impacting students.
School violence, in this context, involves bullying, suicidality and self harm as well as acts of grotesque violence, such as school shootings.
The solution to school violence is not a fence to keep people out but a bridge to let people in.
When taught SEL by mental health professionals within schools and given the chance work through their challenging emotions, students learn to put their feelings into words and in doing so find themselves more connected to their peers, teachers, and counselors.
Students also develop the skills necessary to identify, process, and communicate difficult feelings. This can have life altering effects on individuals.
Famed psychologist Alice Miller conducted an extensive study into what inspires people to commit acts of violence and abuse. As the saying goes, “Hurt people hurt people,” but not all people who’ve been hurt go on to hurt others. Why? Miller published her findings in the seminal paper The Essential Role of an Enlightened Witness in Society.
What she learned is that survivors of abuse who didn’t themselves commit acts of abuse did so because they were,
“Lucky enough to find later both enlightened and courageous witnesses, people who helped them to recognize the injustices they suffered, to give vent to their feelings of rage, pain and indignation at what happened to them. People who found such witnesses never became criminals.”
What Miller is describing is a product of SEL.
Encouraging reporting challenging emotions before they escalate into destructive planning keeps students connected to educators and has a profound impact.
SEL empowers individuals to share these stories and, in doing so, facilitates not just healing but may play a part in reducing school violence. That’s because, as reported by Slate, the best predictor of future violence is past violence, but mindfulness, a strategy taught in SEL, can help prevent its escalation.
The appeal of school hardening procedures is the semblance of safety and control. Having such measures in place is necessary for worst case scenarios.
However, if America learns to preventing school violence, their $4000 armored doors may become a thing of the past.
We look forward to that future.
Ben Kharakh’s writing has appeared in Vice, Fortune, Gothamist, and McSweeneys and his work has been cited by Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Gawker, and Mother Jones. Find him on Twitter.