To increase the possibility of having a safe high school, can we at least do the ‘easy stuff’ first.

Another high school shooting tragedy, this time 17 lives are lost. And millions, starting primarily, and most severely with those students who attend Stoneman Douglas High School, will suffer much long-term psychological pain and suffering. The day after this tragic incident, students all over this nation will get up to go to school and instead of having their thoughts primarily on the upcoming school dance, graduation, college plans, the school play or a varsity sporting event; they will spend a great deal of individual and group time wondering if this day, tomorrow, or next week, is the day they come to school and die. Even in the most academically rigorous high schools; that school experience should be a wonderful break from the cruel and brutal reality of the ‘outside world’; this type and level of violence destroys that barrier, and the student’s sense of safety and security.

And let us not forget school administrators, teachers and school support personnel. They will as is our professional training do their best to establish an atmosphere of “normalcy”. But this type of event is in no way “normal”; and thus the challenge they will face, long after the news cycle has moved on to other topics, is how do you do your best work under these conditions? What are your own children and other family members thinking when you go off to work every day? It should be said, because it is not always acknowledged, that people who work in schools are humans, they know the murdered beyond names on an attendance sheet. They may feel like those students killed, are in a deep way, their own children, their colleagues who were killed, their own brothers and sisters. And every surviving adult in that school building, starting with the principal, is questioning their own judgement: “When did I think that something might go really wrong with this kid, and what did I do (or not do) with those thoughts”

Every person in that school, student and staff person, are now having painful ‘second thoughts’ as to whether they saw or heard something, but did not say and do something. From the NY Times:

In the hours after the shooting, people who knew Mr. Cruz described him as a “troubled kid” who enjoyed showing off his firearms, bragging about killing animals and whose mother would resort to calling the police to have them come to their home to try to talk some sense into him. At a school with about 3,000 students, Mr. Cruz stayed to himself and had few friends but struck fear in some students with erratic behavior and an affinity for violence. “He always had guns on him,” the student, who did not give his name, told WFOR-TV. “The crazy stuff that he did was not right for school, and he got kicked out of school multiple times for that kind of stuff.”…”

The truth we must speak is yes, we have high school students who come to school every day, but who for some reason or another, are isolated and desperately disconnected from the school community.

Those of us who have spent a considerable amount of our professional lives in high schools know ‘the truths’ of high school culture. Just as it is true that high schools are very wonderful, edifying and life enhancing places; it is also true that for some students going to high school every day is a form of a physical and psychological living hell. For several reasons:

•They were unprepared in their K-8 educational experience to do high school work; unable to read adequately, do math or follow the discussions in the classroom. School for these students is not the fun place many of us remember, rather it is a daily, and in every class reminder of why they don’t fit in. These students resolve this problem (by way of teenage thinking methods) in five possible ways. (1) They will seek to affirm their humanity by becoming discipline problems. (2) They will be chronically late and absent, thus plunging them deeper into academic unreadiness and failure. (3) The ultimate affirmative act of personality assertion is that they will simply drop out. (4) They will inflict some form of verbal or physical violence on one or many of the school family members, who they perceive as accepted, successful and happy members of the school community. (5) They will subject themselves to a planned ‘slow’ (drug-alcohol use, risky life-style behavior, drunk driving) or quick suicide.

•I love teenagers, but alas they also have the capacity (like most humans) to sometimes act in a cruel fashion. There is a great deal of “body, appearance and clothing (and sneaker) shaming”, disability and academic underperformance teasing, “in-crowdism” and “cliqueism” behavior in high schools. For those students who live daily in the ‘out crowd’ status, the school can be a most unpleasant place to be. The mistake many adults who work in high schools make is to downplay and dismiss these feelings of alienation. But to teenagers this culture of peer acceptance and rejection is major. On many occasions as a principal I have been forced to pay for ‘stylish’ eyeglass frames because a student would refuse to wear the ‘social service’ issued frames, even though not wearing those glasses was hurting the student academically. Also, at times I had to stop by a student’s house in the evening, reach into my pocket, and pay for ‘hair salon’ or ‘barbering’ cost. Why, because when I called the house to find out why the student did not come to school, either the student or the parent informed me that they could not afford to pay for hair care services until a few days from then; and the student did not want to come to school and be teased.

•Students who are either physical or verbal bullies, are very often the victims of adult bullying and possibly emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse outside of school. Also, students do not shed a troubled, emotionally inconsistent and the absence of an effective adult authority home and family life at the entrance to the school door. Again, a major adult mistake is to expect teenagers to respond to their pain and isolation in a logical and sensible way; it won’t happen. Any serious ‘outside of school’ problematic issue that goes unaddressed and untreated festers, and eventually explodes.

This leads us to a discussion of how we can address the ‘easy stuff’.

•Too many high schools are moving in the wrong ‘providing counseling services’ direction. Departments, programs and professional staff that provide these critical services are being cut and/or eliminated for either budgetary, or, due to the school leadership short-sightedness of their importance in a school (or both). What we need is a visionary-massive Marshall (like) Plan to make sure that all of our schools have a practical and effectively workable student to guidance counselor ratio, as well as providing schools with adequate clinical psychologist and social workers. These services have been cut so badly that in most high schools the student to guidance counselor ratio is the same as the student not having a guidance counselor at all. Despite the ‘newly discovered’ by some, of the drug crisis, most schools are still missing a F/T drug counselor-educator. And clinical psychologist and social worker ranks have been so decimated, that in most schools they can only manage to see students who have these counseling services mandated as part of their IEPs. This leaves the vast majority of students in the school, who don’t have IEPs essentially on their mental health own. We need the same level of commitment and attention we give to ‘post-incident grief counseling’, to ‘preventative-grief counseling’.

•As a culture, public education tends to lean too heavily in the direction of ‘documentation’ and not the problem solving-resolution action arena. Once a student ‘displays’, even in their early stages, seriously troubling behavior, whether it is caused by outside or inside of the school issues; the school administrators and guidance/counseling department must come up with an action plan; that could include in school counseling, cooperation with outside of school counseling and other social support services; as well as law enforcement agencies. In this particular case Mr. Cruz gave a lot of very declarative early signs that his guns should have been taken away, and that he should have been put on some kind of ‘watch list’ (yes schools do that!)

•Give every high (and middle) school principal a F/T Assistant Principal of Administration (called AP of Organization in some school districts). This person will be responsible for the ‘mountain’ of paperwork a principal is forced to do every day. Right now if a principal sensibly wants to be a constant physical presence around the school, they are forced to provide the district with free administrative work labor in the evening hours. Principals should not be forced to choose between being penalized for the late submission of paperwork (which was always my choice!), or being able to actually interact with students, parents and staff ; as well as being able to gather firsthand knowledge and information in their school. Information degrades the further it is away from your direct perception (reception). A principal stuck in his or her office for large portions of the school day is the equivalent of driving a car blindfolded.

•The principalship is a uniquely exhausting, extremely difficult and seriously challenging position. It is made even more burdensome by the fact that the principal is the only person in the school building who does not have the benefit of having their supervisor/coach in the building with them. But as a superintendent it became clear to me as to why it is so important for principals to have leadership support and strategically smart professional development. Now I realize that my access to information for this incident limited, but based on even my limited readings of the statements of students and faculty at Stoneman Douglas High School; Mr. Cruz did everything but walk around the school with a sign around his neck saying: “I am about to explode”. For the most part school districts have done a good job in teaching school administrators what to do once a ‘live shooting’ like incident occurs, or after it has ended. The next important step is to help principals to be more effective in responding to these situations when they are in their early developmental stages. Create the opportunity for principals or counselors to ‘debrief’ concerning a troubling student who is transferred to another school. Presently, when a student is transferred for disciplinary or ‘safety’ reasons, all that happens is that the student’s records are forwarded by the sending school to the receiving school. Finally, support should include giving principals the resources to create pro-active crisis preventative programs and activities, as well as backing them up when they take a strong protective-disciplinary stand for school safety.

•Principals (get out of your office!) and other school administrators must become fully engaged with the student body. There are parents and students who are still angry with me so many years after I served as a high school principal. I was often accused of: “Doing too much”. But in fact, in high schools it is the doing too little, or just enough, that represents the breeding ground for major trouble, and/or a tragedy. As a principal you must get to know your students as individuals, their personalities, the lives they live outside of school. This is not only for the safety and well-being of that individual student; but further, these students who you connect to, and trust you, can serve as sources of informational ‘tripwires’ for other students who are facing a crises. Seek out, and engage ‘quiet’ and less socially involved students (I always allowed ‘shy’ students, or students who felt the cafeteria was too crowed for their liking, to eat in my conference room). What are their interest, talents, skills and gifts? And then get them involved in some school activity where there is an adult serving as an advisor. And so…

•We need to eliminate the potential isolation of high school students (including having a strategy for students who transfer into the school after the 9th grade, or after the school year has started; i.e. providing the transferring student a group of ‘friends’), by creating a school culture of social engagement. This will require the financial resources to have a diverse and rich survey of teams (academic and sports), clubs, dance, music, performing and visual arts. After-school-weekend-school break activities, events, cultural institutions trips (Contrary to common practices, we should continue to do ‘school trips’ in high school!) I have never met a student who did not enjoy, or was not good at ‘something’. Find that ‘something’ for all students, and get them involved in doing it. This approach can greatly eliminate a student’s feelings of isolation, but it also places them in the observation care and protection of other students and faculty members.

No racial, economic, geographic and academic achievement gap here; no parents send their children to school to be seriously injured or killed! But my Republican voting fellow Americans should consider that financially starving public education and social/counseling services; is not just harming children of color, or the ‘inner-cities’. Our lack of commitment to fully invest in our children will continue to inflict grave harm on all children, whether they live in a Blue or Red community.

Violence (verbal and physical), against students and staff in high schools goes beyond guns, and occurs daily without much news coverage. Unfortunately, as in similar mass murder crises, the discussion around this incident will be primarily focused on ‘gun acquisition rights’ arguments. And of course this is a necessary and important question that is in desperate need of a solution. But while we are waiting for the nation to get its ‘gun rights’ act together, millions of students will be attending school every day, and so what can we do to make them more safe, right now?

Michael A. Johnson is a former high school principal and superintendent. His book: Report To The Principal’s Office: Tools for building Successful High School Administrative Leadership will be released in Spring/2018.