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Using community to make our schools safer… and better

The other day I wrote about the question of school security. I argued that no reasonable person would want our kids to go to schools that were equipped to repel any possible invasion by a hostile adult.

But there are other ways to make ourselves more secure, and improve our schools at the same time.

A recent article in The New Yorker (“Adaptation,” Jan. 7, 2013) brings together research that urban planners are using to make cities safer. The most shocking research was done in the aftermath of the 1995 Chicago heatwave that killed 739 people. When researchers compiled the data, they found that the deaths were largely concentrated in poorer neighborhoods, which was unsurprising. The surprising thing was how neighborhoods with very similar demographics fared so differently.

“Englewood and Auburn Gresham, two adjacent neighborhoods on the hyper-segregated South Side of Chicago, were both ninety-nine per cent African American, with similar proportions of elderly residents. Both had high rates of poverty, unemployment, and violent crime. Englewood proved to be one of the most perilous places during the disaster, with thirty-three deaths per hundred thousand residents. But Auburn Gresham’s death rate was only three per hundred thousand, making it far safer than many of the most affluent neighborhoods.”

The neighborhoods that fared better had far more interconnected communities. Individuals did not solve their problems on their own; they relied on their community to provide support, while they provided support to others.

Our public schools have largely become like the neighborhoods of Chicago where elderly residents suffered and died alone. Where once schools were used as community centers and viewed as central meeting places for neighbors, now in the name of security the community is locked out of schools. Where once parents were considered part of a community that educated children, now parents are on the outside and are brought in only to meet with the professionals whose job it is to teach the children.

The more locked away our schools have become, the more inaccessible and remote, the more they have been seen as “the other” by members of the larger community. Most of the news about schools is negative. People whose children don’t go to the local schools are likely to have a vaguely negative opinion about them. There is no sense that our schools are part of our community, functioning to help create more productive members of our society. The punitive testing environment created in the last 12 years has nurtured a sense that our kids are running behind in a race and will never measure up, and that our teachers are lazy slackers who are taking advantage of taxpayers.

In this time, violence in our schools has risen while violence elsewhere in our society is falling rapidly. We live in the safest time ever to be a human being, yet we feel anxious and fearful for our kids’ safety. In this post-9/11 society, we see security being increased everywhere, and it seems natural to call for an increase in security in our schools.

But as The New Yorker article points out, this increase in security measures has not increased our actual security—our safety on a day-to-day level.

“Whether they come from governments or from civil society, the best techniques for safeguarding cities don’t just mitigate disaster damage; they also strengthen the networks that promote health and prosperity during ordinary times. Contrast this with our approach to homeland security since 9/11: the checkpoints, the bollards, the surveillance cameras, the no-entry zones. We do not know whether these devices have prevented an attack on an American city, but, as the sociologist Harvey Molotch argues in “Against Security,” they have certainly made daily life less pleasant and efficient, imposing costs that are difficult to measure while yielding “almost nothing of value” in the normal course of things.”

Bullet-proof doors and electric fences will not solve the problem of violence aimed at our schools. We can’t fortify ourselves against an unknown enemy and still go about our business in a comfortable, socially healthy manner.

What we can do, however, is learn from the past in order to find what really will bring positive benefits to our society. In the case of school security and improving education, we can bring our communities back into schooling. We can not only welcome but expect that community members would want to take part in the education of a new generation. We can make our schools places where caring adults interact with needy children.

In “Why You Truly Never Leave High School” (New York Magazine, January 20, 2013), writer Jennifer Senior points out that teenagers of the past were not separated from adults and made to feel like “the other” in our society:

“Until the Great Depression, the majority of American adolescents didn’t even graduate from high school. Once kids hit their teen years, they did a variety of things: farmed, helped run the home, earned a regular wage. Before the banning of child labor, they worked in factories and textile mills and mines. All were different roads to adulthood; many were undesirable, if not outright Dickensian. But these disparate paths did arguably have one virtue in common: They placed adolescent children alongside adults.”

Over the last century, we have grown a new teenage culture due to the fact that teens spend so little time with adults and so much time getting “socialized” into a culture that is a parody of adult relationships. We expect our kids to get excited about STEM careers, but they’re spending most of their time with people who are excited about playing video games. We expect our kids to develop kindness and empathy, but they are spending most of their time in “Lord of the Flies”-like mini-societies where kid rules trump anything the occasional adult may teach them. Sure, you can have anti-bullying campaigns and rules enough to fill a 3-inch binder, but if you don’t have enough adults to model what it is to be a scientist, a business owner, a nurse, or simply a mature, productive adult of any profession, how do we expect kids to learn these things?

Learning happens when the learner sees a purpose for the learning. Security happens when we connect with each other and care about the connections we make.

Opening a school back up to a community model will not fortify its walls against an intruder who bought a hand grenade from someone he met at a shooting range, but it will make our schools safer and more effective, nonetheless. We all need to feel that we have a stake in how well the next generation is educated, and once we do, we’ll also feel that we are part of a safe and interconnected community.


Posted in Culture, Education.

One Response

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  1. Suki says

    Here’s a more recent article about the best way to respond to terrorism. I think it shows a larger view of the same solution: don’t let terrorism rule our lives. If we do that, we’ve lost the battle:

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