For Administrators

Build Caring Into Your School Security Strategy

By Brian Gatens March 13, 2013

I loved being a classroom teacher. Every September, I was given a fresh start with new students and the ability to work with them for the next 180 days. My caring for them flowed from me and I felt the same in return.

Odd way to start a post about school security, right?

You probably expected me to tick off a list of the latest “target-hardening” strategies: Reinforced glass, more cameras, armed guards and so on. Well, all those tactics are important to providing actual security and a sense that our schools are safe, but I think they come nowhere near meeting what schools truly need.

In order to be truly, deeply and authentically secure, schools need to pour out examples of kindness, compassion and love to their students each and every day. Admittedly, in this day and age all schools have to recognize that physical security is a key concern, but physical security alone will never make schools truly secure.

Can respecting young people’s need for patience, kindness and compassion make our schools safer? Yes, from my experience.

So, how do we do this?

1. Talk often of caring and compassion to your students

Regardless of your students’ age or subject matter, set a clear tone that inside the four walls of your classroom, there is no way that you will accept or tolerate poor treatment, disparaging comments or negative behavior from any of your students. Experience shows that current or former students who visited acts of violence upon schools felt incredibly isolated and marginalized inside their schools. Rather than being places where they were respected and humanized, schools pushed them farther and farther from the social mainstream.

2. Give students the opportunity to care for others

Some examples would be to adopt a needy village via www.heifer.org or run a food drive for a local shelter. And do this regardless of your subject area. Being active in social-consciousness activities — when it’s not part of your official job responsibilities — sends a strong message to your students about how much they should value other people. Also, be prepared for some students to offer the patented teenage eye-roll when you introduce the activity. Showing resistance to good works, while internally and begrudgingly liking the idea, is common in teenagers, who often look for the opportunity to resist even the most positive authority. Your dedication in the face of their resistance will send a strong message on just how important it is to you.

3. Teach students — not subjects

Yes, I meant that play on words. The children in your class are not your “subjects” in the feudal sense, nor do you teach a “subject” like math or art. Instead, you teach and model for children every second of every day. I suggest that you seek out Ted and Nancy Sizer’s excellent book “The Students Are Watching,” as it discusses the moral imperative and responsibility of teachers.

4. Be patient, kind and compassionate

For inspiration and guidance, I turn to National Public Radio’s show “On Being.” Host Krista Tippett speaks to a wide variety of people from across the spectrum to explore topics such as conscience, kindness and social justice. Tonight I listened to her interview with Father Greg Boyle and his work with gang members in Los Angeles. I plan on sharing it liberally, as Father Boyle spoke deeply and passionately about the need to be kind and caring for all, regardless of how much they sometimes don’t seem to deserve it.

5. Be enthusiastic

Let your passion and desire for your job flow out and through you. Create opportunities for the neediest (both economically and educationally) of students to shine when under your care. Get them to love your class and your school so much that they would never consider harming you or anyone else in the school, and if they were to learn of a plot to hurt the school, they’d run to you to protect the place that you love, and through you, they love.

That’s real security. Security based in the belief that schools are places in which kindness, love and compassion are the rule, and not the exception; a place where students care for one another and about one another. Regardless of your situation, subject or challenges, all of this is inside your grasp.

An educator for two decades, Brian P. Gatens is superintendent/principal at Norwood Public School in Norwood, N.J. Gatens has worked at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. He has been a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal and now superintendent/principal.

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