June of 2002, I pledged to help lead and walk beside those that want safe schools and better communities for our future generations no matter how uncomfortable. I pledged that I would not abandon what I know to be the “right thing” simply because others find it easier to ignore and conform. I pledged to continue to make schools a better place for those that face: bullying, harassment and demoralization. I pledged to continue teaching tolerance and respect in and outside the classroom. I pledged to stand up and fight for those weaker than myself. I also pledged to speak openly and honestly about what plagues public education until people are willing to take notice and change it. Shortly after making these pledges my life turned upside down.
When I was attacked in my classroom, no one came to my defense. In fact, the school administration did everything in their power to silence me and to defame my character in order to protect their own reputations. It took four years and two separate lawsuits before I discovered that my attacker was known to the administration. They had been warned about his behavior and he was on probation for bringing guns onto a school bus. He never should have been allowed in the school.
When faced with “minor” incidents, many administrators hope to maintain the school’s reputation. Their first reaction is silence. The second is cover-up. No school is perfect. When you deny or avoid problems, they increase. With that in mind, I offer the following suggestions to teachers and administrators.
Strategies to Reduce Violence in Schools
• Develop a school atmosphere which promotes acceptance and nonviolence. Do not allow physical or emotional threats or behaviors in your school. Take seriously acts of bullying, minor violence, intimidation, etc. Teach your students conflict resolution skills, how to respond to a bully, and self-protection skills such as how to call 911 and how to stay safe when parents are fighting.
• Be aware of the potential for violence. Know your students. Look for signs that they are angry and about to lose control. Get training: how to de-escalate and intervene safely with physically-violent students. Know how to stay calm in a crisis, who to call for help, and how to protect yourself and your students. Make sure you have a communication system between your classroom and the office. Do a school safety audit on a regular basis.
• Provide appropriate supervision. Use supervision times to connect with students.
• Teach the social skills necessary to build positive relationships. Skills such as conflict resolution, peer mediation, resisting peer pressure, personal safety, and how to maintain healthy personal boundaries will all help reduce violence and promote emotional health.
• Provide a structured and predictable environment with limits and rules. This will ensure safety, consistency, and security at school. Be consistent in how you deal with both success and misbehavior.
• Give each and every student a feeling of belonging. Build class cohesion through cooperative learning and acceptance. Make every student feel you believe in his or her worth as an individual. Build students’ self-esteem through high expectations, giving choices, and positive support/praise.
• Be a role model. Teach respect for all people and all ideas/beliefs.
• Demonstrate and teach safe and healthy ways to express feelings through talking, art, music, writing, exercise, etc. Model appropriate nurturing interactions with others.
• Encourage students to make their own choices. Teach independence and the ability to take a risk. Give each child a sense of being a worthwhile individual separate from their family’s problems. Build initiative by modeling the courage to be imperfect and the ability to recover from mistakes.
• Be honest. Let students know what you can and cannot do to help. Do not make promises you cannot keep. Many students already do not trust adults. Your behavior should not further erode any small amount of trust they may have developed in you.
• Teach stress management skills. Reduce stress in your classroom. Create an atmosphere that is safe and calm. Healthy humor relieves stress and builds resilience. Provide opportunities for play, fun, and joy in the students’ lives. Encourage them to participate in extracurricular activities and develop their own talents.
• Be willing to listen and offer help and support but know when to ask for help. Refer students and parents to appropriate resources at school and within the community, especially for individual or group counseling.
• Take care of yourself. Working with difficult students is emotionally exhausting. Be careful not to become overly involved with these students. Develop your own self-care techniques for stress reduction. Recognize symptoms of compassion fatigue and do what you need to do to keep yourself healthy and emotionally grounded.
• Be pro-active. Support community and public policies which make it clear that violence is not acceptable and that promote the safety of victims and their children.
• Encourage community training for school personnel, social service workers, law enforcement officers, etc. so people who work with families and children recognize the symptoms and understand the effects of domestic violence.
• Be aware of the symptoms of domestic violence in your co-workers as well as your students. Statistics show that it is highly likely that some member of your school faculty is involved in an unhealthy relationship which may include domestic abuse.