Op Ed: School Safety: It’s Complex, “But We Are Not Powerless”

Sandy Addis, Director, National Dropout Prevention Center
 Ray McNulty, Dean of Education, Southern New Hampshire University and National Dropout Prevention Center Board Member

School Safety: It’s Complex, “But We Are Not Powerless”

Our nation is once again shocked and appalled by a senseless school shooting. Once again, the media and political factions clamor for answers, numerous and simple solutions are quickly offered, and blame is directed almost everywhere.  If we look behind the clamor for simple solutions to a complex problem, a great deal of agreement can be seen.  Commenting on the Parkland school shooting, former President Barack Obama said, “We are grieving with Parkland, but we are not powerless. Caring for our kids is our first job.”  Commenting on the same incident, President Donald Trump said, “Our entire nation, with one heavy heart, is praying for the victims and their families. No child, no teacher, should ever be in danger in an American school.” 

If we as a nation can reach this degree of agreement on the importance of the issue and on our responsibility to address it, and if we can achieve an equally unanimous level of agreement that this problem will require complex and multiple answers to fix over time, then indeed “….we are not powerless.”

For years, the National Dropout Prevention Center has worked with schools, districts, and communities to reduce “at-risk” behaviors, to reduce “dropouts”, and to address the impact of “trauma” for youth. Each of these terms, and their relationship to the Parkland tragedy, has been extensively explored in recent commentary about and analysis of the Parkland school shooting. 

Kids being, or becoming, at risk is a complex matter and varies among kids, schools, and communities.  Trauma takes many forms, may be rooted in the family, the community, or the school, and impacts children in different ways, but always negatively.  Dropouts, those students who for whatever reason do not make it to high school completion, have numerous and complex situations and usually gradually disengage from a relationship with school rather than simply departing school for a single reason.

Our nation’s schools have struggled with the at-risk conditions of our youth, the negative effects of trauma on our young people, and the dropout issue since the 1980s.  If we agree that “…we are not powerless” to ensure that “No child, no teacher, should ever be in danger” can we also agree on the lessons learned over 30+ years that can help us make schools safer?

We know from research and experience that certain approaches reduce the negative impact of at-risk circumstances and trauma and in turn reduce dropouts. Several of the National Dropout Prevention Center’s 15 Effective Strategies for Dropout Prevention are directly applicable to the complex issue of school safety and certainly we are not powerless to make better use of them to make our schools safer.

Systemic Approach means that everyone in the system (the school system) understands and is aware of the at-risk conditions of all students, owns the success of those at-risk students, and does their part to identify and assist them.

Community Collaboration means that matters of at risk, trauma, and dropout are concerns of the total community and that neighbors, law enforcement, public services, health care providers, and the faith community all work with the school to identify, sound alerts, and provide wrap-around services to children and families that might otherwise be safety risks.

Safe Learning Environment of schools does not just mean freedom from violence and danger. It means that ALL students feel that their school is an emotionally and psychologically a safe place where they belong and want to enjoy being every day. It means that the school climate is valued by ALL students and teachers and is something they enjoy and want to preserve.

Family Engagement means more than parents attending teacher conferences and school meetings. It means that families and educators trust each other, communicate openly about the child’s best interest, and share behavioral changes and concerns that each might help the other to better understand and address.

Alternative Schooling means more than just having a different place to house and punish misbehaving students.  It means that school systems offer multiple varied places, times, and approaches to teaching and graduating those students who for whatever reason do not function well in the traditional school environment.  It also means that, for students whose behavior prevents their enrollment in the traditional school, there are appropriate alternative programs that provide the necessary supports to develop the behaviors and skills necessary to become a productive citizen.

“….we are not powerless” to improve the safety of our schools and to reduce the likelihood of tragedies like the Parkland school shooting.  We just need to agree, and commit ourselves, to better use some of the complex, but necessary lessons we’ve already learned.

For Additional Information Contact:
Lynn Dunlap, Director of Communications
National Dropout Prevention Center
Phone: 864-642-6372 Ext.105
Email: ldunlap@

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