Common sense needed on school safety

January 8, 2013

Published by the Winnipeg Free Press

The horrific school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, sparked a continent-wide discussion about school safety. This renewed interest in security is understandable — everyone wants students to be safe at school. Unfortunately, common sense seems to be in short supply as many proposed measures are not particularly helpful.

For example, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty reacted to the Newtown massacre with a hasty pledge to implement a “locked-door policy” in all elementary schools. Along with requiring schools to lock their front doors when classes are in session, McGuinty’s government will spend $10 million to make sure all schools come equipped with security cameras, buzzers, and locking doors.

Turning schools into miniature fortresses, however, will not guarantee student safety. The front doors at Sandy Hook Elementary were already locked — the killer simply shot through the front door and forced his way into the building. Short of turning every school into Fort Knox, it is nearly impossible to keep out a madman intent on inflicting damage.

Any public place, whether a movie theatre, shopping mall, church, or school is a possible target for someone determined to harm as many people as possible. No amount of planning can make any of these locations absolutely secure against intruders. The public needs to guard against politicians overreacting to tragedies that, fortunately, remain extremely rare, particularly in Canada. The last thing we need is to turn our schools into virtual garrisons.

There are more immediate safety concerns. Rather than obsessing about the remote possibility of deranged gunmen entering schools, administrators should instead focus their attention on student discipline. Cracking down on bullying, maintaining orderly classrooms, and preventing physical altercations in the hallways are the types of things on which all school administrators should focus, which would have impact on safety. Students have the right to a safe and orderly learning environment.

Sadly, when it comes to student discipline, schools often veer into one of two extremes, neither of which is particularly helpful. At one end, some school districts implement draconian zero-tolerance policies that remove all discretion from students, teachers and principals. While zero-tolerance policies may look good on paper, they often lead to absurd disciplinary actions.

For example, a public school in Maryland recently suspended a six-year-old boy for pointing his finger at another student and saying “Pow.” It is unlikely that his fellow students feel much safer knowing their school is cracking down on dangerous finger guns!

Other zero-tolerance absurdities abound in the public school system. Students have been suspended for things ranging from bringing a butter knife to school to drawing a picture of a gun. In 2009, a six-year-old boy in Delaware was even ordered to attend reform school for 45 days for bringing a camping utensil to school. These incidents demonstrate how zero-tolerance removes the ability of teachers and principals to use their professional judgment and leads to ridiculous decisions that make a mockery of the rules.

At the opposite extreme, some schools bend over backwards to accommodate troublemakers, even those who persistently disrupt the learning environment of others. Progressive educators often place so much emphasis on keeping troublemakers with their peers that they refuse to punish students who repeatedly disregard the most basic rules.

Alfie Kohn, a regular speaker at teacher professional development sessions, is a key proponent of this soft approach. In Kohn’s view, schools should be fully egalitarian communities where rewards and punishments for students are nonexistent. According to Kohn, behaviour problems in schools disappear when teachers provide students with engaging lessons.

However, Kohn’s permissive idealism is based on a hopelessly naive understanding of human nature. Some students intentionally choose to disrupt class, bully their classmates, and destroy property, regardless of the quality of instruction they receive. Teachers who fail to enforce clear boundaries from the outset often end up with unruly classrooms.

In order to provide safer settings and more stable learning environments, schools must avoid the equally misguided extremes of zero tolerance policies and permissive idealism. Rather, school administrators should set and enforce clear standards of behaviour for all students, and do so in a way that allows teachers to use their professional judgment. Rules need to be carefully designed, clearly explained, and consistently enforced.

While no school can devise a foolproof plan to protect against every outside violent attack, all schools can and should establish effectively safe and orderly environment learning for their students. When it comes to school discipline, common sense is needed now more than ever.

Taking safety to extremes

Originally published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, November 23, 2011.    Original Link

Safety first, common sense last. That seems to be the motto when it comes to public schools these days. Earlier this month, the principal of Earl Beatty Public School in Toronto sent a letter to parents informing them that hard balls such as soccer balls, volleyballs, tennis balls, and footballs were now banned from school property.

“Any balls brought will be confiscated and may be retrieved by parents from the office. The only kind of ball allowed with be nerf balls or sponge balls,” explained the letter.

Although the Earl Beatty principal’s decision is extreme, it is typical of the lack of common sense in public schools. Such an overarching emphasis on student safety makes little allowance for any activity that involves some level of risk and results in nonsensical decisions such as the one described above.

The trend toward safer but blander school playgrounds reflects an obsession with safety. Most adults today probably remember playing on the merry-go-round and teeter totter when they attended school. Unfortunately, these devices have been removed from most playgrounds over concerns that they are too dangerous. Swings, slides, and monkey bars have not been spared.  While they still remain at some schools, they have been redesigned to be safer and more boring.

The exaggerated emphasis on safety has unhealthy consequences.  A recent article by psychologists Ellen Sandseter and Leif Kennair argues that experiencing moderate levels of risk and danger helps children overcome their natural fears. These psychologists suggest that we can expect “an increased neuroticism or psychopathology in society if children are hindered from partaking in age adequate risky play.”

There are legitimate health concerns. The focus on safety also affects what students may eat in school. Given the prevalence of allergies to peanuts among students, many schools have been declared “nut-free.” In these schools, parents are told to make sure their children do not bring to school lunches that contain peanuts or peanut products. While such rule can be frustrating for those who like peanut butter sandwiches, the life threatening nature of some nut allergies makes it understandable to enact this ban.

However, the decision of a school board in London, Ontario, last month to ban peanut butter substitutes is simply ridiculous. Although it tastes exactly like peanut butter, WowButter is a product developed by Hilton Soy Foods that has no peanuts in it. Nevertheless, the school board decided to ban WowButter from schools because students and teachers might mistake it for real peanut butter.

It’s one thing to ban peanut products from a school out of a desire to protect allergic students from exposure to peanuts. It’s another thing entirely to ban a peanut-free product from the school because it looks like peanut butter. This type of ban does nothing to make anyone safer and frustrates parents who simply want to provide healthy lunches for their children.

While it would be nice if the situations I just described were merely isolated examples, the overemphasis on safety can be found at schools right across North America.

The Manitoba government has joined in. It has expanded the scope of the Workplace Safety and Health Act so that it now applies to all school divisions in the province. As a result, every school division must establish a workplace health and safety committee with representation from each of its employee groups. At least four health and safety inspections of each workplace must take place every year.

Along with their many other responsibilities, Manitoba school principals are now swamped in safety rules regulating everything from the proper placement of extension cords in classrooms to the use of microwaves during lunch. Apparently, students can no longer be trusted to do something as simple as heat up their own lunch in the microwave without an adult supervisor standing right next to them.

There seems to be no end to examples of safety silliness. Some elementary schools in the United States have banned playing tag because students might get injured if they bump into each other. Even skipping ropes have been subjected to bans in some schools.

When students aren’t allowed to kick a soccer ball, play a game of tag, heat their lunch in the microwave, or use a skipping rope, then we know that a safety-obsessed culture has gone off the rails.

While safety is important, so is common sense. It’s time we bring some common sense back to our schools.