“Seven high school students suspended after assaulting a 14-year-old transgender student…”
“A student stabbed a classmate to death with a switchblade and seriously injured another in front of more than a dozen classmates inside their high school. Police are investigating if bullying was a motive…”
Parents send their children to schools for a lot of reasons, not on the list of reasons is to die, end up in the hospital, or their child facing murder and/or assault charges. And yet every year, all over this nation we have a lot of young people who are seriously injured and/or killed, which also often leads to the alleged perpetrators having a negative life-changing encounter with the criminal justice system. These situations leave two or more families suffering from seeing their hopes for their children destroyed; there are no winners here.
As a district superintendent I can say that it was the rare case of student vs. student violence (or students vs. staff person) where the incident was ‘spontaneous’. There was always a ‘back story’, ‘warning signs’, ‘hints of trouble’, that preceded the violent event. There were often multiple missed opportunities, ‘intervention points’, where the tragic incident could have been avoided.
It’s extremely hard (but not impossible) to prevent the ‘spontaneous’ incidents, but there is a great deal that we can do to stop the majority of the ‘building over time’ violence related incidents that show up in our schools, as well as those outside of the school violent events, that are the result of something that occurred inside of the school.
Not just a Metal Detector, a principal needs a ‘Mental Detector’! A thoughtfully strategic plan to find out what is truly going on in the minds, words and ultimately the behavior of the students in the building.
I have told many principals over the years; that you stay (hidden) in your office at your own, and the school’s peril. I always love, love my main office staff folks; but for a principal they are like those Greek mythological sirens who with their beautiful voices want to lure and keep you in the main office, which means certain doom; resist them!
Also, if you are truly called to be a principal, then you must accept that you must work ‘two-shifts’ and get paid for one. The second shift starts in the afterschool/evening hour where you do all of the administrative paperwork, as an off-the-clock unpaid volunteer.
That 2nd shift ‘donation of services’ to the district will allow you to spend that school day’s first-shift moving around the school building, having informal and quick ‘stand-up’/sit down meetings with students and various members of the staff. A teacher may be in their classroom during their prep period, stop by to say hello, and ask how things are going (“Any potential problem they noticed in their classes?”); check with AP’s, the guidance department and deans office: “Anything I need to know?” Students could be on their way to the cafeteria, stop, and talk, check up on them. Make yourself available for informal conversations… Have a real, not rhetorical ‘open-door-policy’. All of these actions are important parts of the intelligence gathering and violence prevention program. In any institution/organization there is a formal and informal information-communication (IC) stream; as school building leader you must tap into the student’s informal IC stream.
A principal must develop and cultivate the art of “approachability”; you really need the members of the school family to feel comfortable with bringing potentially dangerous ‘issues’ to you; and you want to be made aware of these situations in their earliest developmental stages: The menacing look or gesture, the threatening words exchanges, the two people in the gym who were separated but never exchanged blows, the “A said that B said, that C told B, that D was talking about A to E” (Me to the dean: “Just round up all the alphabet cadets and deliver them to my office!”), the teasing or joke that went too far, and/or for too long. The teasing or joke that ‘hits too close to home’.For a child who has lost a parent, being raised by a grandparent, living in foster care, or in a group home; a casual “Momma-Daddy” comment could take them over the edge.
A major part of the safe school story, is for the guidance dept. and school administrators to be aware and be involved with every student’s ‘story’. But further, to connect every student in the building with some type of staff supervised activity. Thus the ‘information gathering’ and mentoring power of clubs, teams and activities that can link students to a responsible adult in the building. Students will often feel more comfortable revealing a concern to a coach or faculty club advisor.
As principal you may not be able to know every detail connected to every student. But you must be open to being a ‘problem solver’ of potentially serious situations when they are in the early stages of development. The school family can’t feel that the principal is ‘too big’ to be concerned about ‘small’ problems; especially since most of big problems in schools start out small! (“Wait, you mean this started 3 months ago when you felt he jumped ahead of you in the lunch line?”)
A pro-‘snitching’ policy is needed to keep a school safe!
As the principal you must redefine, reinvent, rewrite and raise the profile of the “Snitching” narrative. Establish that for our purposes in schools, “snitching” is our friend and protector! You must have the student body buy into the idea that ‘snitching’ makes all of us safer; and to the greatest extent possible keep your sources confidential when they do provide you with life-safety saving information. This ‘snitching is good’ approach includes students letting you know when their friends are having ‘a beef’ with someone, are threatening suicide, planning to run away, drinking and driving, depressed, or are victims of abuse at home.
Understanding the language of ‘teenage speak’.
Remember there is a (foreign to adults) ‘teenage speak’ language and style, that may utilize English words but that’s about it. They also often don’t necessarily deliver information in the way you think it should be delivered. Be non-judgmental, persistent and patient (Also be humble by allowing your youngest teachers to help you with the latest terms and phrases!) On many occasions I have had to listen to a very long (“you see what had happen was…”) story a student was telling me about a serious problem an ‘unnamed friend’ was facing; when it was very clear to me early in the narrative that the student was really talking about themselves. But I had to wait for that moment when they were ready to reveal that the ‘friend’ they were concerned and asking this advice about was in fact them.
Part of the approachability skill set is having the ability when members of the school family are talking to you, make them feel, (and at that moment it’s true) that you are only the principal for one person in the school— Them. Leading a school where the environmental ethos is self-protection, and especially having a type of relationship with students such that they are your safe school partners; is better than any metal detectors you can set up at your entrance doors.
The best parents and principals are tactfully and thoughtfully ‘nosey’!
Growing up I remember one of my mother’s rules: “Only the owner of a premises can put a lock on a door”; and since I was not an owner, there was never a lock on my room door! And who knows what happened while I was at school? (Parents stay nosey-woke!)
Start out the day principal at the front entrance greeting students, read their facial expressions, their body language; do they look angry, worried, sad or upset? If you notice one of these symptoms pull them to the side and in a whispering tone: “Is everything ok, is there anything you want me to know or help you with”.
For boys, these kind of close encounter conversations starting at the front door, and very soon after moving it to an empty hallway or classroom, out of ‘ear and eye shot’ of other males may very well be the only opportunity for that student to let you know that he is being bullied, or planning to fight.
I will give away a teenage male secret here; they actually want (without saying so), an authoritative figure to intervene and prevent the fight; an ‘unauthorized fight’ is not like a fight in a boxing ring. In an ‘unauthorized fight’ a lot of things can go terribly wrong, for either combatant. Asking a male student in front of other students if: “Someone’s bothering you or, are you having problems with so and so”; is guaranteed to generate an untrue response; or even worse “I can (will) handle it! There is again also the problem of ‘teenage language’ and the thinking linked to that language. Teenagers and adults have a completely different understandings of words and terms like: “problem solved, problem solving”, “over”, “respect” (or disrespect), “something being handled”, “defending-protecting myself”, etc. Just because they (for the purpose of responding to power and authority) code-switch over into our linguistic world, does not mean that they accept our cultural-linguistic definitions. It’s like that principal who in honest shock said to me after a vicious after school neighborhood brawl; for which the angry neighborhood residents called (my) the superintendent’s office: “I don’t understand it, they shook hands in my office before they left the building!” Clearly, the young men and the principal had two completely different definitions of: “It’s over!” I gave the principal a reading assignment book list* for our follow-up discussion. We need to understand that teenagers are not mini-versions of us; they are psychologically linguistically speaking, truly another species.
The principal must be a ‘hunter and gatherer’ of information, but they must also be a closer!
Just as information-intelligence gathering is important; also having a thorough investigation and a complete closure process (that the students and parents understand as closure) is critical. There must also be a systemic process that allows the principal to continue to monitor the ‘situation’; as well as a way to evaluate the ‘conditions’ of the closure proceedings and conditions. For example, again returning to ‘teenage cultural-linguistics’; even after a stolen item is returned intact (or even when they received a brand new item) to its owner; and the ‘perpetrator’ of the theft received a severe official punishment from the school. It is not uncommon for the teenage victim to feel that the only justice that would erase what they feel was an affront (disrespect) to their dignity and honor, is a ‘beat-down’ of the thief! And the: “Yo son, you gonna let him…” agitator/friends; out of the hearing of adults will be anything but helpful.
That’s the smart leadership part, now the courageous part…
One of the reasons I always insisted that the novel Lord of the Flies, be placed on the 9th grade reading list was to have students think early in their high school career about what it means for young people to be ‘in charge’: “Is that the situation that you truly want?” The truth is that I don’t really need to convince them, I only need to make them aware of what they already believe. Despite the push-back and complaints from students, and in some cases their enabling parents. It has been my experience that the overwhelming majority of students want to attend a school that is safe, secure, and predictable in its operational practices. Even if they themselves are hell-raisers! Yes, as strange as it may sound, even those students who are fully committed to the cause of hell-raising, don’t want random and unpredictable misbehavior in a school that could adversely affect them if it is not corrected and contained.
Often the reasons for some ‘teasing’ acting out behavior might be deflection and fear; perhaps graduation feels like it is slipping away from them; the fear that they will be discovered as poor readers; or their discovery that they are not prepared to successfully engage with high school level academic work. These students may also be experiencing a difficult, arbitrary, unstable, unpredictable, and yes, living daily themselves as victims of a bullying home environment (These students will often employ verbal or physical bullying at school as a form of self-applied therapy). Or maybe these are teenagers who just never learned how to treat other people with respect. More than anything else these and all students want and need a school environment that practices commonly known and followed principles, rules, and is a safe place to learn, all wrapped up in a philosophy of consistency.
Both the chronic ‘rule breakers’ and the faithful ‘rule followers’ should know the behavioral standards of the school; as well as the serious consequences for not meeting those standards. Students have come (been sent) to my office, where they brilliantly deconstructed the problem and solution: “I know exactly where I went wrong Mr. Johnson, when I could have made a different decision; and I know that I will be spending a day in the In School Suspension Room!” (“Now”, I thought back then; “All I need to do is to get them to the place where they are brilliant on the front end!”)
Principal, take the heat to keep the school a ‘cool’ place to be.
Any high school principal seeking to build a safe for learning school is going to get some complaints. And some of those complaints will come from some of our ‘liberal’ collogues who would never send their own children into a dangerous and chaotic learning environment. The people who charge you with being ‘too strict’, ‘not democratic’, or you’re not letting the “kids be kids”, will be in the front of the line of folks condemning you for having an out of control and unsafe school. I rather have a few feelings hurt, then to have students hurt.
There are many different categories, interest and personalities of students who attend a high school. And although I love teenagers and would not want to work with any other age group; they can very often engage in some very ‘not-so-nice’ behaviors toward other students and the staff. They also bring to the school a lot of the ugliness that is promoted by the adult society. High schoolers also can form a ‘group or clique’, and then seek wrongly to fill the empty spaces in their lives by identifying a not-one-of-us as the “other” to vilify and pick on (Sounds a lot like the 2016 presidential campaign!)
I can only imagine how hard it is to be a school principal today and be forced to transition from a very dignified, inclusive and compassionate Role-Model-In-Chief Barack Obama, to the present situation. But good or bad POTUS role modeling does not relieve the principal of the responsibility for establishing a school wide no bullying zone; not just in words but by action, monitoring, enforcement and punishment. The principal must make the school a place where students feel safe to be smart; and have the power and right to be the ‘who’ of whoever they are.
There are many ways to make a student’s school life-experience enjoyable, fun and fulfilling. Anarchy, danger, disorder and ‘bully targeting’; are not on the list.
As a principal you have your own version of “Serve and Protect”:
• Serve the parents by allowing them to spend their day knowing that their child is safe.
• Serve the students by providing them with a safe and productive learning environment.
• Protect the classroom by making it a place where teachers can teach and students can learn.
• Protect the district from being sued because we did not intervene early and effectively.
Suspending or turning students over to the criminal justice system is an ‘after the fact’ response. What we really need in schools is an ‘early warning’, take affirmative action, and bring things to closure, before a serious incident occurs, plan… Know that, if a school does not meet a student’s standards for safety and protection, then that student will predictably take their safety and protection into their own hands; logic, reasonable thinking, and bad endings-outcomes notwithstanding.
One of the mayoral candidates in NYC has as a solution to school violence, called for expanding suspension rates for students in kindergarten to 2nd grade; and just add more metal detectors. The first suggestion beyond declaring an open ‘search and destroy’ season on poor students and students of color; will in fact actually criminalize and create more bitter and disconnected students, who will end up being prone to acts of violence as they get older, and become less socially and academically successful in the school system. The second suggestion is drastically unimaginative and incomplete; we need to help principals to better discourage and deter students from wanting to bring a weapon to school, not just engage in the act of discovering a weapon. Besides, there are many ‘dangerous things’ in a school building that have, and can be transformed into a weapon of violence against another student or staff person.
Of course we must after every incident review and upgrade school security practices and procedures. But at some point we need to at least have the discussion as to why a student might feel that their only available option to a threat or bullying is to bring a weapon for self-protection into a school; or, in many cases they just won’t come to school at all.
*THE MORAL JUDGMENT OF THE CHILD: JEAN PIAGET; THE GROWTH OF LOGICAL THINKING FROM CHILDHOOD TO ADOLESCENCE: JEAN PIAGET; THOUGHT AND LANGUAGE: LEV VYGOTSKY; DISCIPLINE & PUNISH: MICHEL FOUCAULT.