Safer, Not Safe
Safety. Before the Sandy Hook tragedy, we thought we knew what safe meant at Collins-Maxwell. We are a small, rural community school district in Iowa serving 500 students with an elementary school in one town and a secondary school in another. We are a community that knows each other; we are open, inviting, welcoming, and trusting. We usually know the people who come into buildings, and we trust that those we do not know are here for a valid purpose.
All of that innocence, naïveté, and comfort were robbed from us when the shots were fired at Sandy Hook. I wept at an administrative meeting that afternoon thinking of my students I had vowed to protect and my own children. The following Monday, I stood at the front doors of my elementary school as staff and, later, students passed by. I wasn't sure exactly what I was doing there, other than to provide a presence of protection and comfort. That night I sat in a board meeting and listened to worried parents ask about our evacuation and lockdown procedures, plead for greater security, and suggest we arm teachers with stun guns.
When I asked one elementary teacher what she told the students as they entered her class filled with questions about Sandy Hook and the anxiety that it could occur here, she replied, "I told them I was here and they would be safe." Other teachers told me about how they had checked the weight of tables to use to barricade the doors, the width of windows to get students out, or what objects they would throw at an attacker.
As I write this, I am filled with hope and pride that I work with such dedicated staff. They, too, would give their own lives to save their students' lives. I am also filled with a sense of dread and despair that as much as we want students to be safe, staff to be prepared, and administrators to act on policies in an instant, we cannot keep evil out.
But we are going to try. Our school district is working with our county sheriff's office to prepare our students and staff—and communities—for the threat of evil. Our law enforcement department is training schools and other entities on the ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate) preparedness model. ALICE is the only preparedness model supported by the Department of Homeland Security and is research-based. The program empowers the participants to respond to a threat, not to become a victim. It gives tips for when it is appropriate to lock down the school as opposed to evacuation, how to alert law enforcement, how to inform people inside the building where a shooter is located, and when to counter an attack using objects found in a regular classroom.
We must accept this fact: even with the best security, the best policies, and the best law enforcement, evil still exists. Mental illness and malevolent behavior are too powerful of forces to be stopped by a barricaded classroom door. We in this country are once again forced to realize that our schools can be relatively safe places, but never completely safe places. It is very difficult for me to admit this because I want a great school filled with a positive climate, strong relationships, and a collective spirit. I have it now in both of my buildings. What I don't have, what I will never have again, is the sense of innocence and security like once before. Locks, buzzers, and reinforced doors will only remind us of the danger that lurks; it will not end the danger.
As strong, proud educators, we must focus on the positive, build on our strengths, and prepare our students for this real world. I do not know how to keep students safe. But I do know how to make them safer. The difference is vast and it is critical to me. "Safer" means that the students understand their reality and are prepared for it. I can think of no greater duty for each and every educator. We must teach them how to be empowered, to think for themselves, and to protect themselves. We must teach them to be strong in the face of danger, not cower from it.
We must never teach our students to be victims and accept the ills of society. We must be their champions, their guardians, and their warriors—until they can be them themselves.
Jason Ellingson is the superintendent and curriculum director for Collins-Maxwell Schools, a small school district in central Iowa. He is currently president of Iowa ASCD as well as a 2012 ASCD emerging leader. He is working on his doctorate in education leadership and is anxiously awaiting the birth of his fifth child. Connect with Ellingson on his blog and on Twitter @jasonellingson.