New Mexico’s schools recently made headlines when a 12-year-old boy fired a sawed-off shotgun in his middle school in Roswell, wounding two of his classmates.
The boy acted alone, but not without company: According to Thinkprogress.org, there were seven campus shootings in this nation during the first two academic weeks of 2014— an average of one every other day.
It’s a terrifying statistic, and not only for those of us who send our children to school every day, but also for the educators and lawmakers who hold the professional and moral responsibility of keeping our schools safe. They’ve responded in a variety of ways, from implementing “shooter on campus” lockdown drills to rallying for more stringent gun control, and though I see the need for such measures, I don’t see how they address the underlying questions: Why do young people commit such acts of violence? And why at schools?
No easy answers here. Ours is a culture of violence, and it’s impossible to unravel what creates this violence and what reflects it. People point to Hollywood and video games. They blame the NRA and US imperialism. Poor nutrition. A crisis in health care. The erosion of family and faith.
But there’s another factor we may want to consider— one that became evident to me when I visited a school on the Southside of Santa Fe last week.
It wasn’t a school prone to violence. In fact, it’s probably the safest school I’ve ever seen. Founded 14 years ago by Rayna and Brian Dineen, the private Santa Fe School for the Arts & Sciences (130 students, grades preschool through 8) has developed a reputation as one of our city’s finest. As principal Geetha Holdsworth explained, safety is a big reason why.
She wasn’t referring to security guards and locked doors (I saw neither in my two-hour tour). She meant the safety inside the classrooms: the comfortable, focused atmosphere in which teachers and students work together to learn.
I’m not talking about kids lounging on couches. I visited every classroom, and in all of them , children were engaged in rigorous academic work (even the preschoolers were trying to create a capital Q with blocks). Using a team-based model called Expeditionary Learning, the school tackles academics in a supportive, open environment. Student growth is assessed through personalized portfolios and progress reports—no grade anxiety, no Fridays spent practicing standardized tests.
An example: When I entered the fifth and sixth grade classroom, a girl had just correctly solved a math problem on the board. The teacher asked if anyone got a different answer. Two kids raised their hands, and uninhibited as toddlers, worked through their mistakes out loud.
Interactions like this should be commonplace in classrooms. They’re not. This week millions of fifth graders across the nation will be asked to compare their answers to the board, and millions will do what I always did—maybe you did too: Grab their erasers, shamefully change the answer, and pray no one notices.
Such is the competitive nature of our education system, where top-performers win prizes and praise, and low performers get kicked off the basketball team. Even before the advent of high-stakes test ing, education in America has always been a competitive sport, rife with shame for the losers and guilt for the winners. Many dynamic, loving teachers and principals do their best to counter this culture, but they’re the first to acknowledge they’re swimming upstream.
You don’t have to be a psychologist to realize that surrounding children with shame and guilt is unhealthy. But is it also unsafe? Does this culture of guilt and shame contribute to the demoralization, depression and anger that drive children toward violence?
Of course there’s a big difference between a child feeling shamed in math class and a child picking up a gun. But if it’s safe schools we’re after, we’ll need to look deeper than lockdown protocols, security guards and more counselors. We’ll need to turn to truly “safe” schools, like the Santa Fe School for the Arts & Sciences, and learn how to create open, safe environments.
Near the end of my visit, Holdsworth referred to her school as a “sanctuary.” We need a city of sanctuaries, high-performing schools that keep violence out by ushering safety and non-violence in.
SFPS graduate Seth Biderman is manager of the Academy for the Love of Learning’s Institute for Teachers, committed to revitalizing the lives and practices of teachers.