A half dozen years ago I was recruited, along with a few dozen school safety experts from around the country, to provide feedback to a large federal agency on their idea for evaluating all American schools in terms of vulnerability to terrorism. We did our best to maintain decorum, but eventually a school police chief from the Midwest couldn’t take it anymore. “Excuse me,” he told them, “but the idea that terrorists are gonna attack one of my schools – it’s more likely a meteor’s gonna hit it!” The underlying frustration being, don’t talk to us about preparing for Al Qaeda when you won’t even cough up the funds to fix leaky roofs.
There could come a time when maniacs, terrorists or active shooters descend on us, and yes, it’s worthwhile to prepare for such events, but in the meantime we’ve got a whole lot else going on, and we need to do it well. That’s hard if we’re obsessing about worst case scenarios. I’d suggest a little balance.
When our limbic systems light up, our frontal lobes actually shut down. We can run, hide or fight – just like the popular training video advises–but we’re poorly equipped to do much of anything else. “Run, hide, fight,” is what we would do instinctively anyway, regardless of training, although the reminder is reassuring, and there’s plenty to be said for pre-visualizing success in this regard. Humans frequently panic and screw things up. Practice makes perfect.
Still, I’ve got some concerns. For one, “active shooter” training can be, if anything, too effective. It can make quite an impression, and that impression can take up a lot of brain space. The lessons learned can become so imbedded in our psyches that anything else gets pushed to the sidelines; we lose an awareness of skills better applied to less dire situations. Put another way: we use the tools we’ve got at hand to solve a problem. If we’ve only got hammers, every problem we see looks like a nail.
Here’s what we’re really up against in almost any school: non-lethal fighting, alcohol, drug abuse, promiscuity, classroom hi-jinx, non-custodial parents, pedophiles, gang recruitment, name-calling, heart-break, loneliness, suicidal thoughts, puberty, harassment, running in the halls, asthma attacks, bee stings, hunger, sleep deprivation, and, oh yeah, academic challenges. How do we address those? “Run, hide, fight” for the most part won’t cut it.
So what do I suggest? At least a couple things. The first, specifically focused on the educational experience overall, is: E.T.
No, not extra-terrestrials. (I threw in the picture to get you to read this blog. Sorry.) I’m talking about Effective Teaching. That’s what schools are supposed to be all about, right? And the more engrossing the teaching, the less tempting are the various misbehaviors otherwise available. The more effective the teaching, the less likely students are to become frustrated and alienated.
So how do we teach more effectively? That’s a topic for way more than a blog or two, but it’s going to involve an overall learning experience that’s focused, safe, relevant, challenging and inspirational, where kids get enough food, sleep and caring attention. In a nutshell. All of which is hard to provide when you’re primed for an imminent attack.
The second answer, specifically targeting all kinds of conflict, is: LSD.
No, not Lysergic Acid Diethylamide. Listen, Serve and De-escalate. LSD training is my suggested counter-point to narrow active-shooter training. (And with a name like that, student turnout should be high, if only out of curiosity!) Skills taught should help us resolve conflicts before they get anywhere close to the red zone. This is fully in synch with Positive Behavior Support, helping students feel safe and respected, and ultimately making it easier to learn.
So when the “active-shooter” training fever sweeps through your district, try to remember to provide some balance. Nurture the notion that all is not lost – most schools will never see a school shooting or terrorist attack. Build the interpersonal skills your students and staff will most assuredly need in order to do well in schools, as well as in their wider lives.