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Positive School Climate Equals NO HAND GUNS – by Rodger Dinwiddie, Executive Director

This past week the Tennessean reported that two handguns were found in high schools in Tennessee. Williamson County Deputies arrested a Ravenwood High School student after finding an unloaded revolver in a backpack at the school. There was no ammunition in the handgun. A tip proved the key to finding the gun. A second handgun was uncovered in Franklin County when the gun appeared among students involved in a conflict that evidently had been brewing for a while.
Recently I heard the Assistant Secretary for the Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools address the issue of school safety at the Tennessee School Counselors and Administrators Conference. In general when most of us hear the words “school safety” issues such as handguns, school shootings, gangs, and other more serious issues are foremost in our minds.
While the issue of two handguns in school is a serious issue with the possibility of severe and even deadly consequences, the reality is that handguns and school shootings represent a very small percentage of the issues related to school safety. Jennings pointed out that very few students ever get shot at school. He shared that there were 1,534 homicides in the United States among youth ages 5-18 in 2004 and 2005. Of these, 21 were school associated; the other 1,513 were away from school. Jennings mentions a more compelling issue related to truly identifying a “safe school.” “Incivil behavior, verbal threats, hate language, bullying, social rejection is almost twice as likely to predict student ‘self-protection’ (skipping school, avoiding areas/activities) as is crime (theft, attacks) at school. In a truly safe school students feel that they belong, they are valued, and they feel physically and emotionally safe.”
School leaders who understand these critical issues and lead their schools in implementing systemic approaches to address incivil behavior, including bullying, harassment and all forms of violence, not just physical, but emotional, social, visual and verbal, are in a much stronger position to have a school climate that fosters care, compassion, empathy and high academic standards and student achievement. While a positive school climate is essential to student academic success, positive student behavior, and strong relationships between staff and students, it does not and cannot guarantee the prevention of a handgun in a backpack or in the parking lot. It has been said that all of us are at risk because any of us can become the next victim. However, a positive school climate does result in a culture where students and staff are committed to safety and to each other’s well being. The acceptable norm is to report issues such as handguns, step up for bystanders and take action to prevent the horrible tragedies that can, though rare, result in a community and school being ripped apart by violence.
At STARS one of our goals is to help schools implement practices that will enhance the chances that tragedies can be averted. If we can help please contact us at 615-279-0058.