Adopt strategies that prevent violence in schools

(Reposted from: The Gainseville Sun.  March 6, 2018)

By Heart Phoenix

How do we keep our children safe in schools? The wise, courageous and proactive students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas School have determined that gun control is the first step. Their words and actions have already made a huge difference in the conversation.

Many folks believe that arming teachers, adding more armed school resource officers and installing bulletproof windows, impenetrable walls and metal detectors will not guarantee the safety of our youth. In fact, as many students have shared, these actions would create more fear and bring us one step closer to making our students feel imprisoned at school.

I only wish the politicians could think beyond war and weapons of mass destruction — violence as a solution to violence.

Imagine a society in which we invested our dollars not in teaching our children how to respond to inevitable violence with fear and more violence, but in raising children who have the resources, resilience, empathy and skills to create communities in which violence is no longer the norm. This investment would translate into not only safety for our children in their schools, but also huge benefits for our culture as a whole.

Instead of spending precious dollars turning our schools into impenetrable fortresses, let’s use this money to make real change that will affect not only our kids, but all the members of our community. Imagine if we took a fraction of the resources we use to improve the efficiency and destructiveness of our weapons and used it instead to:

  • Teach peace and nonviolent strategies, communication skills, restorative practices and social-emotional learning at every grade level to build self-confidence, self-awareness, self-management, empathy and healthy values.
  • Express the esteem in which we hold our educators by offering salaries that reflect our appreciation for them and the invaluable work they perform.
  • Fund every school to have a holistic system of care with wraparound services as we do in several schools in Alachua County. If youth have behavioral issues that escalate to the point that they need to be removed from class, there would be in place a dedicated group of professionals to meet with parents and youths to assess the needs of the family and help them strategize ways to meet these needs.
  • Increase in the number of mental health counselors in the schools.
  • Provide trauma-responsive care and resiliency-building trainings for all educators, district staff, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, etc., that would allow these staff to model this behavior to our student population at all levels.
  • Start each day at all grade levels with a homeroom morning circle. In this way, educators would take a break from teaching their students how to read and instead read their students to have a deeper learning of what resources they may be lacking. Students would also get to know one another better, learning about each other’s victories and challenges, encouraging support and empathy rather than bullying or ignoring. In a school climate described here, there would have been the resources to nurture a student like Nikolas Cruz from the beginning of his school career and perhaps this type of tragic behavior could have been avoided.
  • Introduce curricula at every grade level that heighten students’ capacity to develop skills, attitudes and behaviors that will help them deal more effectively with the life challenges they will meet.
  • Expand the curriculum to to include the true history and contribution of our red, black and brown brothers and sisters so that all children may recognize the positive version of themselves within our past, present and future.
  • Take meaningful steps to build trust and empathy among students and educators. Educator/student dialogue sessions are successful.
  • Train our students in restorative peer practices so they have the ability to problem-solve with one another.
  • Integrate play into the school day — not just competitive sports, but also games that elicit laughter, joy, and connection without any competition.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” We have the knowledge and ability to make these changes right now. A cultural shift will take time … so let’s get started.

Heart Phoenix is co-founder and board president of the Gainesville-based River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding.

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