Friday, March 2, 2012

Seeking Sanctuary in Public Schools

Through the ages, during times of trouble and anguish people under stress seek sanctuary. For America’s children today, that place is their public school. Yet headlines in the media once again remind us that this sanctuary is threatened. In the daily ritual of dropping kids off at school, families are laying at the altar of public education their most precious resource, their children; and along with that they invest their highest ideals, values, and hopes for a better future. They expect the great American public school system to serve as a sanctuary where the young are nourished, protected, and revered. They also expect their public schools to offer children sanctuary from an overwhelming and scary world.

What does “sanctuary” mean?  Sanc-tu-a-ry (noun)
A safe haven
. . . for people who are in trouble or being persecuted to find shelter and support
A protective refuge
. . . where an endangered species can be protected from predators or from being destroyed or abused
A “holy” place
. . . of reverence where our core beliefs, legacies, and values are preserved and where we lift ourselves up

The American public school must be adequately supported to fulfill its mandate under all three definitions.
In recent months, I’ve been working with school clients who are grappling with incidents of bullying, child abuse, teen suicide, campus violence, weapons on campus, sexual predators, homelessness, racism, family neglect borne from economic recession, and devastating cuts to vital services like counseling and interventions for troubled youth. All of these colliding at the same time made me appreciate even more that the public school really has become the last best hope for an entire generation of children.  The school is both their sanctuary in troubled times and their cathedral in which we empower them to reach their potential.

This raises two crucial public policy questions around which school communicators can play a vital role in building community dialogue and action:

§ Are we doing everything we can as a society and as educational leaders to empower our public schools to be the sacred refuge that shelters children from the perils and pressures of a complex and threatening world?

§ Since school is the last line of defense for so many at-risk kids why don’t people respect and treat our schools with the degree of reverence they deserve?

All surveys show that the public basically wants three simple things from their public schools: (a) Make them safe and secure learning environments for children, (b) demonstrate continuous improvement in academic achievement for all students, and (c) be cost-effective and efficient in the way we do that. In other words, “Keep kids safe, give them a good education, and spend my tax money wisely.”

Clearly, maintaining safe schools is the highest priority for parents and the public. It trumps academic performance and economic efficiency every time. But when it comes to policy makers and budget setters they have become fixated on increasing test scores, closing achievement gaps, and balancing budgets on dwindling resources.

We are working hard to maintain drug-free and gang-free schools. But in doing so, educators often get sidetracked from confronting the more subtle oppressors . . . a campus culture and climate that can be fraught with tribes, intolerance, indifference, isolation, racism, sexism, harassment, and bullying (by adults, coaches, and students). If school is to be a true sanctuary it must offer protection from all of these and not turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the signs that something is wrong in the life of a child.

But it costs money, talent, and time to build that type of protective bastion and nourishing culture. It also takes the moral and political will from everyone in the community (parents, students, staff, voters, and community) to make eradicating these subtle oppressors a priority in both word and deed.

The heartfelt thoughts of my good friend and colleague Rick Kaufman always resonate with me as I confront the issue of campus safety. I served on Rick’s communication response team during the tragedy at Columbine High School over a decade ago.  In the wake of the shooting on February 26, 2012 at Chardon High School in Ohio, Rick’s words serve as a poignant and eloquent reminder of how we must stay vigilant to the mental and emotional health of all students:

“We must once again resurrect lost hope, and tend to the emotional and physical scars left in the wake of another school shooting. We will hear the pundits blame the bullies, the parents, the schools (it's always the school's fault), the loss of religion and faith, and the state of the world. Should it not be enough that we find a way to transform violence? I'm afraid the painful images of another ‘Columbine’ will visit us again all too soon.”

Bullying is the cause célèbre these days as we search for answers and struggle to build a supportive school environment. Whether it’s a suicide or a school shooting, people should resist applying sound bite solutions to complex situations. Bullying shouldn’t be used as a knee-jerk explanation or catch-all motive for the sadness and isolation that many children feel.  Adults need to learn to listen to the voices of children. They need to pick up the unspoken cues.

More importantly, adults need to model the behaviors they want children to emulate. When political discourse has descended into school yard name-calling is it any wonder that bullying and name-calling happen in our schoolyards? Have we sunk so far that it is impossible to disagree without being disagreeable?

For example, when a self-absorbed close-minded shock jock like Rush Limbaugh can get away with calling a college student a “slut” and “prostitute” for speaking her mind before a Congressional committee simply because he disagrees with her views, what message does that send to children? When someone in a position of power (in this case multi-megawatts in 250+ media markets) uses that position to ridicule and intimidate someone who is different he is demonstrating the crassest form of bullying.

There is no room for bullying in our sanctuary called school. Likewise, there should be no place in a civilized society for the kind of bombast, bias, and bullying displayed by Limbaugh. Bullying behavior by adults in any forum should not be glorified, discounted or accepted.

A quality education for every child is an article of faith and a core belief in our country that deserves to be practiced with reverence and respect in the “sanctuary” called the public school. To that end, public education can become a “Bully Pulpit” to stand up for civility, tolerance, integrity, and open communication about the needs and problems facing our children and our society.

That’s where school communicators can do their best work: courageously convening the conversation about how we should treat each other. Maybe if we can create an environment of tolerance and respect in schools, adults can start learning from children how to play well with others.

Can I get an “Amen” to that!

© Copyright 2012 by Thomas K. DeLapp

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