I just returned from the National School Board Association’s (NSBA) annual conference. NSBA’s Delegate Assembly met on the first day prior to the start of the conference, to set our legislative priorities for the year ahead. One of the issues discussed, was school safety. As you can imagine, the discussion was contentious and in the end, the resolution that passed was much too watered down and in my opinion, likely won’t have the desired impact.
In contrast, the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) released a thoughtful school safety resolution last month asking governing boards around the state to review and consider adopting it. Some boards have already done so, while others have rejected it or have yet to consider it.
ASBA has received numerous comments about the resolution from those who either think it doesn’t go far enough or think it goes too far. I can see both sides. I qualified as an expert marksman during my 22 years in the Air Force and even now own a revolver, which I occasionally fire at a local range. I understand both the incredulity of those who question anyone’s need to own a military-style “assault” weapon, and the defiance of those who believe that if they “give an inch” on gun issues, the other side will “take a mile.”
I don’t know the right answer, or how to best protect our students and school employees from gun-related violence. Properly enforcing laws and policies currently on the books is no doubt a good place to start. Knowing and understanding district policies and procedures, and revising them if necessary, would be another. But I fervently believe that to do nothing cannot be the correct answer.
Neither can it be correct for adults to remain so ideologically polarized they can’t have thoughtful discussions about the safety of our schoolchildren or, equally as unacceptable, for adults to purposefully avoid the discussions to save themselves stress and discomfort.
Yes, the discussion will be difficult, because it necessarily will include gun violence. Of course, we are all sadly well aware that gun violence is not the only threat our students face, but it is the one form of violence that is getting worse instead of better. Rates of both student-reported bullying and total victimization (theft, assault, robbery and sexual assault) have dropped over the last couple of decades. Mass shootings, however, are increasing in frequency and getting deadlier, and schools are the second-highest risk location. Parents know this and that’s why they list improved school safety as one of their top concerns and polling shows concern spikes after school shootings.
In light of this dark data, our districts have, over the past two decades, taken steps to try to ensure schools are safer places, with more security cameras, better controlled access, and written and well-coordinated and drilled active shooter plans. The bad news is that our districts are being forced to undertake these efforts and make improvements on funding that is already inadequate. We know for example, that school counselors – another important part of the solution – are woefully lacking in our schools. Instead of the 1:250 counselor/student ratio recommended or the 1:450 nationwide average, Arizona has a 1:952 ratio, a level that has worsen over the past decade of funding cuts. The damage caused by our anemic district funding isn’t limited to just a critical teacher shortage and dilapidated school facilities, it also makes our schools and the students and staff within, less safe.
ASBA’s School Safety Resolution recognizes (and states within) what everyone must recognize, that although student safety is a primary function of governing boards, it is a shared responsibility that cannot be borne by public schools alone. Rather, it requires support from the community, local and state public safety agencies, and policymakers at the local, state and federal levels. That’s why the resolution “calls upon leaders at all levels to prioritize the protection of students and school system employees from gun violence on campus.” Community members (voters) share in this responsibility to hold these leaders responsible. If your governing board hasn’t yet had the discussion about ASBA’s school safety resolution, you might want to ask why.
We have a diverse state with many different perspectives. That diversity makes us stronger when it is additive versus subtractive, in other words, when we can listen to and learn from, versus just talk “at,” each other. In the military, when we had a tough problem to solve or hard job to do, we would often just look at each other and say, “Well, if it was easy to do, they could get anybody to do it.”
That’s the thing, you see. Our students and professionals that teach and care for them, need us. They need their leaders at all levels, to find a way to make a real difference, before the violence finds its way to each of OUR schools. If there ever was an issue where “Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way” applies, this must surely be it, and this call to lead applies to anyone who truly cares.