Statistics show that next to airports and the White House, schools may be the safest places in America. Most kids are safer at school than at home, but with near 24-7 coverage of the Newtown tragedy, at the moment reality doesn't matter. The violation of what most of us think of as a sacred place has scared the grown-ups, and they in turn are scaring the children.
The Columbine incident and 9/11 both happened while one of us was a school administrator and the other was studying schools. We can learn from what happened after each tragedy.
After the Columbine shooting, in a school we are familiar with, one of the first collateral policies concerned the dress code. We refer to this as the "trench coat era," where anyone wearing a trench coat was considered armed and dangerous. This stigmatized students who typically wore long coats in school. (One Goth kid wore one every day, until ordered to stop.) This led to further dress-code restrictions like no baggy clothing, since we now knew that someone wearing baggy clothing is obviously carrying a weapon and intending to do harm. This escalated to requiring students to tuck in all shirt tails. Needless to say, the clothing restrictions for safety soon became ridiculous. Teachers were more concerned over whether a kid had his shirt tucked in than they were about whether that same kid learned anything. The dress code itself became a major distraction to teaching and learning.
After that came a clampdown on threatening or perceived threatening remarks. In almost all cases, students who were suspended (by policy) for threatening another student or teacher were simply speaking out of frustration. It's what kids do, especially teenage boys. The mass suspensions became another major disruption to the learning environment.
From that came a parallel development, equally detrimental to school culture. Since perceived threatening remarks are in the eye of the beholder, kids started snitching on other kids, using new rules to settle old scores. We'd like to think that kids are more ethical than grown-ups, but if that were so we might not need schools in the first place. And paranoia does not bring out their best. In a tense environment, clever and manipulative "mean girls" and more than a few mean boys use the new school culture to their advantage, creating a sort of school safety McCarthyism. The first victims were kids who had trouble fitting in, often special-education or foreign students.
In these situations school principals and vice principals are caught in the middle. Parents want to know what you are going to do to make sure that a tragedy does not happen at your school. Teachers want to know the same thing. The central office and school board throw down mandates that are detrimental to the learning environment, but that the principal is expected to follow.
It takes a good principal who has credibility, common sense, and communications skills to finesse the knee-jerk policies sure to come after a tragic event.
Schools would work better if grown-ups would act like grown-ups, and realize that lockdowns, police presence, and tightening up discipline do nothing to make us safer, or even to make us feel safer. In fact, these are exactly the reactions that the demented individuals who perpetrate mass killings hope for. Let's not give them what they want. In the matter of school safety, the greatest thing we have to fear is fear itself.
Ed Bengtson teaches educational leadership at the University of Arkansas, where Robert Maranto ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is the 21st-century chair in leadership and serves on the board of a nonprofit cyber school.