Steps to safer schools

Minnesota legislators are debating what to do about student fights and attacks on teachers in some schools. As legislators refine policies, I hope several principles are included: expectations, consequences, flexibility, support and students’ strengths.

Joe Nathan
Joe Nathan

People like Don, Teresa and Mr. Phillips (not their real names) come to mind when I read headlines about assaults in schools.

Teresa often instigated fights in a public school where I worked. She constantly told one student something negative another student supposedly said. Educators will recognize the “he said, she said” gossip game. As an assistant principal, I spent hours sorting through this. We tried lectures, detention and suspension. But the fights continued.

Our expectations for safety and respect were vital. Fighting is not acceptable. There must be consequences for bad behavior. But that’s not enough.

Fortunately, Mr. Phillips had an idea. Phillips was a coach who many youngsters respected. He had heard about the “peer mediation approach,” where students helped others understand better ways to resolve disagreements. He thought Teresa might be a great peer mediator. He was right.

With Mr. Phillips’ leadership, Teresa began receiving a lot of positive attention for her mediation skills. She stopped seeking attention by instigating fights. The number of fights declined to virtually zero.

Don’s story is somewhat different.

Don was transferred to a public school where I worked. He had hit a teacher after the teacher challenged him. His behavior was completely unacceptable. But was the only alternative expulsion? Fortunately, not. Don was given his choice of a few other schools and transferred to ours. He joined a class I taught where students solved real consumer problems.

Initially, Don struggled. In a case involving a car dealership, Don suggested writing down the problem, a good first step. But then he recommended wrapping the paper around a rock and throwing it through the dealer’s window. Wrong!

Gradually Don learned to use his anger and creativity to solve problems. A newspaper article appeared about the class, including his picture and his quote about the class.

Don later told me that after his violent past, “I thought I might have my name and perhaps my picture in the paper – but I never thought it would be for something good!”

Don graduated and had various jobs, including working for a famous musician. Ultimately he started a charter high school that is helping some previously unsuccessful teenagers use music to express themselves and find success.

These stories help illustrate what Lee Ann Stephens, Minnesota’s 2006 Teacher of the Year, now working in St. Louis Park Public Schools, recommends to improve school safety: using “restorative and mentoring method(s) to … help to build a school culture that advances positive development and learning.”

State Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, executive director of the Minnesota Education Equity Partnership, told me he favors a policy that “recognizes and supports the power of building relationship between teachers and students versus ‘managing’ classrooms and schools.”

In both examples above, relationships improved dramatically by combining expectations, flexibility, strengths and support.

Gary Amoroso, executive director of Minnesota Association of School Administrators, wrote that school discipline legislation “needs to provide the flexibility to school personnel to address the unique circumstances of each situation.”

Denise Specht, president of the state teachers union Education Minnesota,  recommends, among other things, “more support staff, including counselors and psychologists.”

She also urged “expansion of full-service community schools, which offer a wide variety of health, academic and social services to students and their families.”

I agree with Amoroso, Specht, Mariani and Stephens.

Legislators might establish a committee to study and make suggestions on improving school safety. That could be valuable. If it’s created, I hope the group includes educators who helped schools move from struggling to safe, along with students, parents, community and business members. And as we work for safer schools, I hope Minnesota uses five powerful principles: expectations, consequences, flexibility, support and students’ strengths.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is a former director and now senior fellow at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected].

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