Monday, December 17, 2012

Are our schools safe?

This Sunday my parents invited my husband and me to go to church. They really upped the ante when they watched our 8 week old overnight for us. We had a wedding the night before and we were able to stay out late and not worry too much about her.

Anyway, towards the end of the service the pastor invited teachers to come up to the front of the congregation for a prayer. I and four others (including my hubby) went up to the front. As we bowed our heads to pray—the enormity of the situation in Newtown, Connecticut hit me. I started crying…and I could not stop.
Perhaps, it was because as we walked up to the altar, my husband was carrying our newborn baby girl and she puts a whole new perspective on things. Perhaps, it was because as a teacher, it could have been any of us—at any school?
Yes, my students are my kids. They have been “my kids” every year that I have been a teacher.
My first year of teaching was completely crazy. I worked with 17 high school kids who could have been Adam Lanza. They were all diagnosed as “Emotionally Disturbed” (or ED.) They had bipolar disorders, they had multiple personalities, some would self medicate with marijuana or alcohol before school started—but all of them could snap at the drop of a hat.
I can recall at least two times that my class could have been in danger that year. However, I never felt like any of my ED kids would hurt me. In fact, they were actually quite protective of me.  But, we did have some outside influences that caused trouble from time to time.
My ED kids and I were banished to an antiquated portable at least a half a mile from the office. The windows had bars on them and the walls had lovely wood paneling. Not only was the portable far from the office, the lock on the door could only lock from the outside. Once we were in the portable, we couldn’t lock it. With a lot of complaining and persistence, I finally got the maintenance crew to properly fix the lock. But, by that time it was almost March.
One day, one of my older students told me to look out the window. He pointed to a red car in the parking lot that had a guy sitting in it. He said, “Miss, that guy wants to kill me.” Visions of a driveby went through my mind. I called the front office to notify the principal and the police. After almost a half an hour, the assistant principal finally came out to parking lot to do a quick check and then he headed back into the building. The police never came. Of course, the red car left shortly after he saw we were peeking out the bars on the windows. I am not sure how that situation remedied itself as this particular student ended up dropping out of school just a few weeks later.
Another day, the Academic Dean came out to the portable in a rush. She told me there had been a huge fight in the neighborhood the night before and she had heard from several students that one of my kids had a weapon on him. She searched him but didn’t find anything. He later said he did have something on him, but stashed it in the field before he got to school.

These were two examples that could have turned out to be pretty bad. Luckily, that red car drove away and my other student had a moment of clarity--he realized it would not be a good idea to bring a weapon to school.
I only worked in that job one year. That was the most unsafe I have felt as a teacher, but a lot of it had to do with the lack of support I felt from my administration and our proximity to the main building.
Since then, I have worked at four other schools. Three of those have been middle schools and one was an elementary school. It has been years since I have participated in a “Shelter in Place Drill." And, in my technology classroom—we don’t have anything to barricade the doors with, no closets or cubbies to hide in--but I would protect my kids with every ounce of my being, if I had to.
Each school I have worked at has a nice sign on each of the outside exits stating that “Visitors must check in to the office.” After they check in, then, the visitors go through a background check and recieve a badge to wear around campus.
Funny, I am sure a crazy and deranged person is going to promptly check into the office.
We as teachers have been told that if we see a stranger that is not wearing a badge, we should walk them back to the front office.
I don’t think our students have gotten this memo.  In fact, a few weeks ago I brought my husband some lunch at school—I had lunch in one hand and the carseat and the baby in the other. I did not have my badge on. A kid opened the side door for me to let me in. I had never seen this child before, but I thanked him and went on my merry way. It made me think, how many other kids would just open the door for a stranger—allowing them free reign of the building?
The safest I have ever felt as a teacher was when I worked at a brand new elementary school. Visitors had to go directly through the office and then they would be buzzed in to the building after a background check. It was at this school that the principal required all teachers to keep their doors locked after they were in their rooms. This made for a nuisance whenever anyone had to use the restroom, but looking back on it—it was a simple safety measure.  
So, are our schools safe?
My first year of teaching was on the crazy side and surely not the norm.
On the whole, I know the odds of a shooting occurring at a school are one in a million. However, there are things we can do to make our schools safer.
Design and engineering can play a huge factor. Public schools in the United States average about 42 years of age. ( There simply is not enough money to redesign all our schools. And if there was, is it really worth it?
All schools need to have a plan in place. The plan should be practiced and all should know what to do in case of an emergency. Kids should be made aware that visitors must have a badge on. If they suspect someone is in their school that does not belong there—they need to notify an adult immediately. Or, if they see a door that is propped open, or something out of place--they need to notify an adult. And, ideally the adult will take this information seriously and look into it.
But, we cannot live our lives in fear. As I was talking to my parents about the whole situation in Connecticut and how horrible it was, my dad said to me, “You just have to live each day to the fullest. We all have a lot to live for.”
As I glance at my daughter, I know that my dad is right. (I am not too proud to admit it.) We all must keep going. My/our kids deserve it.

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