Safe schools

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(HOST) In light of events like the recent Essex School shooting, Vermont schools have been implementing new security measures this fall. Commentator Mike Martin has been thinking about how we can ensure that they’ll still be places for happy, productive learning.

(MARTIN) When I was a kid, my dad worked at IBM, and one day he took me in to see the place. The building security made Dad seem more like James Bond than an electrical engineer. Mind you, this was well before ATM machines and most people didn’t even have credit cards back then, so when he stuck his employee badge in a slot and the door knew it was him, I was amazed. Then, we went down long halls and through more doors where he had to use his magic plastic badge again. That magnetic card and tight security really made an impression on me.

So now, as it turns out, I wear a badge too, but only since this year, and I work in a high school, not at a multinational. With all the crazy events of these past few years, our schools have been working hard to keep kids safe. A few schools have scanners, video surveillance, and policemen, but even those that haven’t gone that far, still have made changes. They’re limiting building entrances, practicing new kinds of emergency drills, putting phones in classrooms, and installing doors that lock from the inside. They’ve also been trying to keep better track of who the adults are in the school, and so that’s why I wear an ID card now when I go to work.

Of course the challenge for our administrators and school board members is to figure out how to keep schools safe without turning them into prisons. At my school, the focus has been on connecting with each and every student, instead of just adding more surveillance. With our advisory program, each student sees the same faculty advisor and small peer group every morning for four years. And the faculty, wearing ID cards and red lanyards, is a strong, friendly presence in the halls. Visiting French students were surprised at the camaraderie and respect our students and faculty share. And when we do our new emergency drills – they’re not just for fires anymore – we call one of them “Clear the Halls” instead of “Lock-Down” which is a prison protocol.

Recent events show that our schools aren’t only under threat from disturbed students, but also from dangerous adults from the public at large. But even if we design maximum security schools, we can’t just cut them off from the wider community. And that’s how it should be – school isn’t just a service or product, and it shouldn’t be just another battlefield for our culture wars either – school is the heart of our communities, and we all have a huge stake in making schools happy, productive places.

Our former superintendent, Brian O’Regan used to tell us how in Africa, Masai warriors often greet each other with, “How are the children?” Answering that the children are well means that life is good in the tribe.

The same holds true for us, and our schoolchildren, here in Vermont.

Mike Martin writes about issues of culture and education and teaches French at Champlain Valley Union High School.

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