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College of Education and Human Development - George Mason University

School Safety: A Student Right and Community Responsibility

Safe schools are essential for student learning and development. This principle is both logical and self-evident – it should not need to be said.

However, recent events of violence in schools underscore the premise that safety – providing an environment that is free from the fear of personal insecurity – is a “right” that our students MUST expect. And, if fear associated with personal insecurity is present, as is the case for so many students today, then safety is an assurance that our students MUST CLAIM – just as scores of students have done as participants in recent protests, walkouts from schools, and other community gatherings.

My friend and colleague Marian Wright Edelman, the renowned advocate and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), often has said that children deserve our very best effort. The mission of the CDF is “to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.” Her wisdom is clear and her challenge is wise. It represents a frame through which the lens of every community must focus.

It is a time of crisis for our nation as students, families, and their communities reflect on the tragedies that result from violence in our schools – and also violence more pervasively in communities throughout the nation. Certainly, we must not soften, or in any way marginalize, the enormity of the loss and its associated grief, outrage, and associated anger. That is real, and its enormity cannot, and should not, be underestimated.

These tragedies, each of which is unrelenting in its impact, are not unique events. They are the tragic consequence of a “gathering storm” that penetrates every community in our nation. The violent actions of a troubled person or persons, which seems to have been the genesis of the incalculable tragedies of Parkland, Sandy Hook, Columbine, and other places whose names now forever will be associated with tragedy, are beyond rational comprehension. Yet, however tragic, they also are vivid reminders that our initiatives to prevent violence in our schools must embrace an understanding of “context.” That is, if we are to prevent violence, we must understand what both causes and allows violence to occur.

Experts note that behavior requires BOTH motive and means. The inferences are clear. Interventions must contradict motives and associated motivations to “harm” while also preventing the acquisition of the means to do harm. Mental illness does not cause violence, even though some mentally ill persons have been violent. Violence is perpetrated by individuals across many segments of society, far beyond those who suffer the challenges of mental illness.

We must provide appropriate and accessible services for those who suffer from mental illness – that is a responsibility of a just, fair, and compassionate society. As a psychologist, I support both the importance and need for such programs – and increased funding for them.

However, treatment of mental illness will not stop violence and will not end gun violence – its most lethal form.

Clearly, one critical imperative is that schools must teach students more than academic subjects. Educational systems, both formal and informal across the life-span, must integrate sophisticated, evidence-based models of social and emotional development and personal responsibility in their curricula while also holding students – and educators – to a high standard of conduct and behavior.

Concurrently, schools must have sufficient resources to identify and serve those with special needs, including learning and other developmental challenges as well as emotional, behavioral, and psychological challenges. Providing such resources may not have prevented the tragic mass shootings that have galvanized public opinion. However, doing so may prevent many other consequential acts of overt violence and the more subtle macroaggressions that also have significant impact.

Motives for violent behavior must be addressed in schools and also in our communities. The decades-old notion that schools are the “bedrock” social support structure for communities again must be embraced. It does “take a village” as the saying goes, and all members of every community must teach and be role models.

The issue of “means” also is critical. Certainly, “means” come in many forms, and violence can be perpetrated in many ways.

Lethality is associated with means. Guns, as instruments of tragedy, are among the most lethal means of violence that readily are available. Keeping guns from entering schools is essential. Yet, even more importantly, preventing the acquisition of means that are lethal is just as important in our communities as it is in our schools. Constitutional arguments are a smoke screen for real dialog about the real issues. The time has come for controlling the acquisition of “means of lethality” through the sensible regulation of firearms and requirements for meaningful background screens for all prospective purchasers of firearms. And, yes, legislators must enact legislation that prohibits the purchase of military-style weapons.

The answer is not to place more guns in schools, as some of our leaders impulsively have suggested. Those who jump to this conclusion are asking the wrong question and finding the wrong solution. The question is not how to add lethal weapons to schools that will further endanger life safety and security, rather, it is “how can violence be prevented?”

Students are leading the way, as our nation embraces the idea that we should “lock arms” rather than “become armed” for the necessary struggle to join virtually every nation on earth to limit access to “means of lethality.” Educators now need to follow the lead of their students.

Surely, school security is complex, and linear solutions that address complex, systemic problems are doomed to failure. It is essential that multi-dimensional issues, such as the reasons for conditions that prompt violence and the devastation and aftermath of violence must be addressed.

My voice is clear – it is about motive and means.