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October 1, 1997

Perspectives / Schools as Safe Havens

Despite the cautionary signs that proclaim schools drug-free and gang-free, some schools are scary places. A few years ago in Savage Inequalities (1991), Jonathan Kozol documented the crumbling buildings in inner cities and the callous attitudes in suburbia. In this issue, Jianping Shen cites national statistics showing how conditions have escalated. Teachers in urban, suburban, and rural areas all report a steady increase of violent incidents, student conflicts, verbal abuse of teachers, drinking, and even weapon possession at school.
That this trend is a hard reality for most educators was typified by a story a teacher recently told me. "If you have a school of 2,500 students like mine—just as in any population that size—you will have some kids who've seen murder, some who've been involved in crime, some addicts, some prone to violence, some disturbed."
On the theory that outsiders prompted most of the confrontations on campus, her suburban high school required all students to wear ID bracelets. An observant teacher surveyed the students to find only 40 percent were wearing those bracelets on a given day. To the chagrin of those who were attempting to enforce the new practice, the administrator who had ordained the rule didn't make the students comply. Eventually the bracelets were just a memory. The rationale: "Our students feel safe and don't need bracelets."
All of this points to the fact that solutions that promote safety (like ID bracelets, metal detectors, and security guards) are problematic. Sometimes they cause morale and discipline problems and contribute to anomie and fear at school. But looking the other way never gives students—and teachers—a safer environment.
Despite some protests that they shouldn't have to be involved in such matters, schools today are making extraordinary efforts to be safe havens in our society—places where human life is held dear and where children can thrive. In this issue, we publish some of those examples.
Baltimore educators, for instance, detail how dividing a big school into six smaller career academies eliminated the need for security checks and cut down on an inordinate number of suspensions for discipline infractions. Greeting students at the separate entrance of their own school-within-a-school is just one way teachers reduce anonymity. The career emphasis makes students active participants in their own learning community.
The Dallas school district has yet another way of providing security. More than 150,000 students there have access to nine youth and family centers, each one near a school campus. The centers partner with other social service agencies to provide students and families extensive mental, physical, and emotional health care—from immunizations to GED classes.
Ralph da Costa Nunez and Kate Collignon describe model programs for homeless children, children who move from school to school and shelter to shelter in search of survival and skills to break the cycle of poverty. The programs combine the educational expertise of schools with the service of shelters to offer education for families as well as services like employment and nutrition counseling.
A number of our authors write about the qualities that contribute to a safe climate in classrooms. Teaching the skills of cooperation and conflict resolution is key—but they are not the easiest skills to practice, as we all know. Charol Shakeshaft and colleagues inform us of the pervasive teasing kids indulge in and endure every day.
But those seem solvable problems compared to those at a school like Audy Home in Chicago, a holding facility for teens awaiting sentencing. William Ayers, in A Kind and Just Parent (1997), looks at the lives and educational experiences of the juveniles so frequently called "superpredators" and "ticking time bombs" by the media. These are the children we seek to protect the others from, the teens we are all afraid of. Yet his portraits of students and teachers reveal a truth about "these kids." They too need steady, patient, observant, kind, and just parents and teachers—and protection from society's ills. Only then can they hear and heed the message, "You can change your life."
Back when I was a teacher, we led rather sheltered lives in our schools. Our kids today do not, in and outside of schools. But as William Ayers tells us," A child in crisis, a child in trouble, is still a child." All children deserve a safe haven.
References

Ayers, William. (1997). A Kind and Just Parent: The Children of Juvenile Court. Boston: Beacon Press.

Kozol, Jonathan. (1991). Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc.

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