As policymakers prepare to find the best way to respond to the tragedy in Newtown, educators and parents across the country are left to wonder -- what can we do to make our schools safe?
The lessons of Sandy Hook Elementary School can help us answer that question in two ways -- one that is uncomfortable, and one that is essential.
The uncomfortable truth of Sandy Hook is that there is nothing we can do to guarantee that our children are safe. Short of placing an iron dome over our school buildings or turning them into police bunkers, the only thing we can do is create spaces for children that are as safe and supportive as possible. And so while it is encouraging that national policymakers are intent on addressing the larger aspects of American culture that make acts of mass violence like this all too common, the only things individual schools and communities can do are the sorts of things Sandy Hook had already done: establish clear safety protocols, lock their doors once the school day begins, and be vigilant in their efforts to keep children safe.
There is, however, something essential our schools can do to ensure that all children feel safe and supported, and it, too, is something the educators of Sandy Hook were already doing: proactively addressing the full range of each child's developmental needs, and providing students with the love and support they need to learn and grow.
It was happening the morning of the tragedy: principal Dawn Hochsprung and psychologist Mary Sherlach were in a meeting with the parent of a child who was struggling, and together they were working out a plan to ensure that his needs could be addressed to help get him back on track.
This is becoming a lost art, and a lost practice -- most schools, if they have a team of mental health professionals at all, maintain skeleton crews whose daily efforts cannot possibly account for the needs of all the children in their charge. This is especially true in our poorest communities, where budget cuts and conflicting priorities have forced educators to cut back on counselors, social workers, and psychologists.
In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, this cannot continue.
It's impossible to know if a more robust set of supports could have helped Adam Lanza before he decided to commit mass murder. But it's undeniable that a more robust set of supports would help current and future generations of students get the help they need, and keep them on track to live happy, productive lives.
For proof, just look to the schools and networks that already operate this way. Consider the School Development Program (SDP), a national network of K-12 schools structured to ensure that every adult -- from the teachers to the bus drivers to the custodial staff -- is well-versed in the six developmental pathways children must travel down: cognitive, social, emotional, linguistic, ethical, and physical. Or visit any of the more than 200 affiliates of Communities in Schools (CIS), a nationwide network of professionals who work collaboratively to surround students with a range of academic and behavioral support services.
What programs like SDP and CIS recognize is a simple fact about children: unmet social and emotional needs become unmet academic needs. And they recognize what Yale University's James Comer -- the founder of SDP -- has observed: "With every interaction in a school, we are either building community or destroying it."
So let's keep encouraging our elected officials to push for lasting changes in the way our society is structured. And let's recognize that in the meantime, and from this day forward, each of us has a vital role to play.