Education Department Redefines School Safety, Downplays Violence

Posted by on August 24, 2010

Most parents view a “safe school” as one with little or no violence.  But apparently violence takes a back seat in defining school safety in the Obama Administration’s U.S. Department of Education.

Instead, “incivil behavior” is the buzzword inside the D.C. Beltway.  It follows right along with “climate” and “bullying.”  “Belonging” and “valued” are also high on the list.  “Civil rights” is moving up quickly, too.

But you’ll be hard pressed to hear the words “violence” or “gangs” or “weapons.”  “School shootings” will be a discussion of the past, and don’t dare expect much to be said about school security, school-based policing / school resource officers, or the juvenile justice system. In fact, over the past year we have not even heard much about “drugs” or “drug prevention” from the Department’s Office of Safe and “Drug Free” Schools.

The buzzwords: Bullying and climate, bullying and climate, and ugh…yeah, bullying and climate. Now “incivil behavior” is being added to the list.  These dominate the speeches, events, policy, and soon the funding from this office.

Education Department Redefines “School Safety”

The new federal definition of “school safety” was  unveiled last week in an interview with Kevin Jennings, Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education for the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools, on the web site* of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

How has the definition of a “safe school” changed over time? What does it mean for a school to be safe today?   Kevin presented the Department’s new definition of “school safety”:

“The traditional view of a “safe school” has been one in which there is little or no violence on campus.

I think this viewpoint is much too limited.   If you’re only looking at school violence to measure school safety, I believe you’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.  

Consider this: “Incivil behavior” – verbal threats, hate language, bullying, social rejection – is almost twice as likely to predict student “self-protection” (skipping school, avoiding areas/activities) as is crime (theft, attacks) at school.

In a truly safe school – and the definition we use today at the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools – students feel like:

  • They belong.
  • They are valued.
  • They feel physically and emotionally safe.
  • In other words, we put a greater focus on the overall school climate.”

Schools Can Expect New Federal “Standards” and Data “Measurements” Required for Climate – And School Safety “Scores”

In the interview, Kevin reported that school safety aligns with two of Education Secretary Duncan’s overarching goals:

“The first goal is to adopt rigorous standards across the board within our school system. In addition to academic standards, we need to set equally rigorous standards for school climate.

The second goal is to build data systems that help measure and track student achievement. In the same way, we will require measurements of school climate that capture how safe students feel in America’s classrooms.”

School boards and administrators should expect to see future mandates by the Department of Education in these areas, especially in the form of “climate surveys.”  As Kevin stated in this interview:

“I like to remind my colleagues that “what gets measured is what gets done.” We can’t successfully address the school climate challenges we face without accurately assessing the extent of our problems.”

The Department also reportedly will push for schools to be graded on school climate with schools receiving some type of “school safety score” to be published to school-community.

What is the Department of Education’s plan?

The Department’s plan, according to this interview, is:

I like to refer to our plan to make schools safer as the 3 P’s.

Examples of policies that address safety issues include school-wide rules and sanctions – a control strategy – and setting climate standards that address the school culture.

Teacher training on issues like behavioral and classroom management are types of programs that can positively impact school climate.

School climate practices can include skill-building, conflict resolution and youth leadership activities.  

Through the implementation of policy, programs, and practices, we can work together to improve school climate.”

My Take

School climate is important.  Kids need to feel like they belong.  Relationships among students, and between students and staff, are necessary for safe schools.  I fully agree that school climate is one important component of a comprehensive approach to school safety.

You must first have a secure school that is violence free, though, in order for education, climate, prevention, and intervention strategies and programs to be implemented.  The student who gets attacked and beaten in the back hallway of the school is not going to benefit much if he/she is fortunate enough to make it to the classroom or school psychologist’s office for a conversation on school climate.

There are all kinds of legitimate questions within the focus on school climate itself. Perhaps the first will be, “How do we define school climate?,” given the body of literature on the topic suggests in a number of ways that there is no commonly agreed upon definition in the academic and practice worlds.

Other questions include not only how will school climate be defined, but who will be defining it?  Will it be D.C. bureaucrats? Will the definition be influenced by special interest groups lobbying for their agendas under “anti-bullying” and “school safety” labels? 

Then a question already on the minds of many following this development:  How will the “school safety” score be determined?  What will be the criteria?  Again, who will be defining the criteria and scores?  Who will decide what tools (surveys, etc.) will be used to make this determination and what will be the content and focus of these tools?

And finally (for now), another big question: Will these school climate “safety scores” be the Obama/Duncan/Jennings version of the “persistently dangerous schools” disaster created by the prior Administration and Congress?

The most obvious big-picture question, given the Education Department’s skewed redefining of school safety as one not of violence but of “climate” and “incivil behavior,” is: Who in the federal government is going to take the lead in focusing on the issues of violence and violence prevention as critical defining components of school safety?  If the Department of Education’s every word and admittedly skewed focus is on “climate” and “bullying,” who will take the lead in dealing with weapons, gangs, drugs, assaults on students and teachers, security, school-based policing / school resource officers, emergency planning, etc.? 

The answer appears to be: Nobody.  And perhaps that is by design.

One attendee at the bullying summit told me there was a very clear anti-police, anti-security, and anti-juvenile justice undercurrent in the breakouts this person attended.  This is not surprising, given the above new definition of school safety and overall radical shifts in policy and proposed funding for the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools (whose name should perhaps be changed to the “Office of Bullying” or “Office of School Climate” instead of “Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools”).

Add to that the newest twist, announced at the recent “bullying summit,” that “bullying” and “harassment” are civil rights issues and the Department of Education will now be “proactively investigating” schools.

Violence apparently is not an urgent factor in school safety or, at best, is one that will take a back seat under the current Administration.  Almost every speech, press release, event, etc.  by Kevin Jennings over the past year has been on bullying and climate.  Priorities are dictated by the words of an organization’s leader and the budget he/she sets for their activities.  It is clear from both the words and proposed budget that violence is not the primary focus of the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools. And in fairness to Kevin Jennings, he has been candid and up-front all along that this is his agenda.

This “movement,” which is influenced by a number of special interest groups lobbying for legislation and policy changes under the mantra of “anti-bullying”, seems like a runaway train. Legislators can’t jump fast enough on the “Bullying Bandwagon.”  The education associations, non-profits, academicians, and Beltway Bandit research and technical assistance firms are following along like little sheep, in some cases in anticipation of a new funding stream to chase and in other cases biting their tongues out of political correctness and fear of not offending the current Administration in power.

We’ll see how and where they all stand when all Hell breaks loose and they then try to explain to the public and media why they blindly endorsed a skewed policy and funding shift while pushing violence, drug prevention, security, school police, juvenile justice, etc to the back burner and/or off the stove.  This is not a “zero sum game” where it has to be one approach (violence prevention) or another (climate).  It should be a comprehensive and balanced approach consisting equally of many approaches, not a grossly skewed policy and funding approach as is currently being pursued.

It especially seems odd to me that such a skewed emphasis on “incivil behavior” and “bullying” is coming from a place that has to be the most “incivil” and “bully”-filled location in the world: Washington D.C.  Perhaps the Education Department’s campaign and movement should start in their own backyard before they decide to be the “bullying police” and “proactively investigating” local school districts? 

Ken Trump

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2 thoughts on “Education Department Redefines School Safety, Downplays Violence

  1. Andres Durbak says:

    Ken: I agree wholeheartedly with your take on this trend at DoEd, but I’m really surprised that Arne Duncan and Bill Modzelewski are allowing it to go forward. Arne knows very well what “violence” is all about, and how real it can get in a school with a “climate of violence”. It’s as if the “schoolhouse to jailhouse track” zealots have taken over.
    Even the media have jumped on board with this trend towards “sanitizing” school-related violence. Recently, a TV News feature about a girl who received a “beat down” by a female gang, and suffered serious facial injuries, was dubbed a case of “severe bullying”. Well, how about aggravated battery, a major crime, instead?
    But the “schoolhouse to jailhouse track” zealots will do anything to prevent law enforcement, juvenile justice system or, God forbid, the criminal justice system from getting involved. And, many wrongheaded police and court officials go along with this nonsense, as a way towards achieving “demand reduction”, “service call reduction”, “case load reduction”, etc. As if, simply because a violent crime occurs on school property, it can be treated as a “school disciplinary issue”, and not as a law enforcement issue. I don’t know of any Criminal Code enacted by any State that denies victims their right to justice under the Law, simply because they happen to be students on school property. The more schools deny students (and parents) their rights under Law, and keep them ignorant about their rights, the more they’re contributing to the problem of student violence. I fear that the rarified, disconnected, atmosphere of Washington DC, may have wiped away the harsh lessons Arne learned in the real world of Chicago.

    1. Ken Trump says:

      Well said, Andy. Well said. There’s nothing I could add to your point. You nailed it!!!

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