How Fear Governs Our Work with Students and What to Do

If you ask the average parent or teacher these days about school safety, they’d reply how fearful they are. Each year, more school policies are put in place to ensure that kids remain safe, and campuses are free from lawsuits. Consider some of the new rules schools have erected in the last year:

  • Coghlan Elementary School no longer allows hands-on play at recess.
  • A New Jersey school has now banned hugging. Too many germs.
  • A Connecticut Middle School has banned any balls on the playground.
  • California and New Mexico schools now outlaw Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
  • A Toronto school now bans cartwheels or jump rope on the playground.
  • A school in England has actually banned “best friends” at school.

We have become absolutely obsessed with children’s safety. Just look at our signage everywhere: Danger. Off-Limits. No Running. No Jumping. Toxic. We are certain that the world is going crazy. It’s easy to conclude school has never been a more dangerous place. I mean, it’s true, isn’t it?


May I share the truth with you?

Schools are not more hazardous today. Despite the school shootings we all heard about in Newtown, CT, or Aurora, CO or Pittsburgh, PA or Decatur, GA…school violence is actually down and the safety of our schools is up. For America’s 55 million K-12 students and 3.7 million teachers, statistics tell a different story than the one we have in our heads. Despite two decades of high profile shootings, school is not only as safe as it was twenty years ago, it’s become an increasingly safer place.

The Department of Justice released new numbers from the National Crime Victimization Survey, and they are astonishing. More than twenty years ago, in 1992, 181.5 students per 1,000 were victims of crime at school. Last year, it was 49.2 victims per 1,000. Not only have the numbers not gone up, they’ve actually dropped. Overall, the number of non-fatal victimizations has also dropped by 71%. That’s a lot.

So why are we so scared? Consider the facts.

1. We hear about everything today. Several all-day news cable channels make sure we hear all the gory details of every campus crime, and we’re sure our kids’ school will be next. Information is ubiquitous, which causes our fears to climb. Lots of information creates a growing awareness, which leads to fear.

2. We’ve renewed our battle on bullying. This is a good thing, but because awareness is so high, we automatically assume the numbers are rising. Perception becomes reality. Parents and teachers are always on the lookout for it, and we tend to see what we look for and what we expect to see.

3. We keep expanding safety equipment. Although this is a good addition to our lives, it also creates a heightened sense of accidents, broken bones, scrapes and cuts. From bulletproof backpacks to secret hiding places in school classrooms, we now are mindful of the worst that could happen. The fact is, the more we focus on solving the problem externally, the less we prepare our kids internally.

May I suggest we build a fence at the top of the cliff not just a hospital at the bottom?

While I understand the attention given to keeping intruders out of schools, I believe we must look inside, not just outside for the solutions. We continue to create rules, safety policies and external legislation, when the real problem lies inside of the kids. (And by the way, it usually is a young person who is the perpetrator.) I think parents and educators need to push for mental health and wellness services. In fact, I think we need to find ways to cultivate virtue and character—far beyond the “word of the month” system most schools use.  This is a mental, emotional and spiritual health issue that we can prevent, not just prepare for. This is one reason why we created Habitudes—Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes. I don’t think we need more ridiculous rules. We need to work on developing kids internally, so they’ll be ready for the world that awaits them. Again, let’s think about building a “fence at the top of the cliff rather than a hospital at the bottom.”

Your thoughts?


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How Fear Governs Our Work with Students and What to Do