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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Newtown Superintendent Talks School Safety

Brianna Sacks |
February 24, 2013 | 3:04 p.m. PST

Editor At Large

(Supt. Janet Robinson at National Conference on Education/Brianna Sacks, Neon Tommy)
(Supt. Janet Robinson at National Conference on Education/Brianna Sacks, Neon Tommy)
Newtown, Conn. Superintendent Janet Robinson has been thinking about resiliency in the wake of the elementary school tragedy that shattered her small, seven-school district’s sense of security and normalcy last December.

In an interview on the final day of the National Conference of Education in Los Angeles, Robinson folded her hands and took a calm, measured breath before discussing what she thinks should be done to protect students, and what kind of conversation the country needs to have regarding school safety.

Robinson gave testimony before a Democratic Party congressional panel last month to push for a ban on assault weapons. Since then, politicians, parents and schools have tossed around different methods to prevent violence and the two main topics, gun control and mental health, have been dissected from a variety of angles.

But to Robinson, keeping a more vigilant eye on student behavior and teaching students coping skills that help them “roll with” all life will throw at them are a few critical practices  schools should adopt to help prevent future acts of violence.

                                                       ALSO: America Must Address The Heart Of Public Shootings

She spoke of routine, empathy, sensitivity and most importantly, the joy of being in a classroom.

These are the things that we as a nation need to think about in our discussion of school security.  Not only do we need to preserve these qualities, we should amplify them to give young students the experience they should be having when they walk onto campus.

“We are thinking about what adults want and in that discussion we are forgetting about the kids and their needs for routine and a caring environment,” said Robinson. “It has become all about our fears and how do we protect students and because of that we run the risk of taking away some of the joys of being a child.”

 Armed guards, police officers, metal detectors  and cameras may secure a school’s walls and doorways, but it will take an influx of counselors, therapeutic programs and curriculum to prevent further acts of violence in schools, said the superintendent .

School safety should be primarily about protecting a child’s emotional wellbeing. The question is, however, how exactly we execute that in a nation currently influenced by so much fear and distrust.

“I think we need to look at this more systemically and say that this is a value we have as a country,” said Robinson. “So that we can have more programs and opportunities nationwide that include sensitivity and empathy to help timid students speak out.”

The story of Adam Lanza has been mulled over by a multitude of media and psychologists. “Raising Adam Lanza,” which premiers Tuesday as part of the PBS series “After Newtown,” attempts to uncover the psychological explanation behind a troubled young adult who seemingly, suddenly snaps.

                                                          ALSO: Details Of Sandy Hook Gunman's Psyche Emerge

But many are realizing that events like Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook were planned over time and often spurred by emotional pain and other mental issues.

Many experts say preventing these tragedies comes down to a culture of attention and identifying students who are experiencing stress.

Robinson agrees. It's about viligance, she says.

“We need to build confidence in students and focus on those who are experiencing emotional problems, or something traumatic in their homes and have assistance when they need it,” she said. “And we typically don’t do that until a child has exhibited ‘bad behaviors’ later on.”

“I know my district did not have elementary school counselors,” she continued.

One of her biggest concerns is that parents and politicians are reacting out of fear when making decisions about school safety.

“A concern I have is that kids start to get the impression that if they don’t see armed police officers at schools they are not safe,” said Robinson. “Safety is not just a physical thing and I believe strongly in having more counselors at younger ages.”

Throughout her years as a school psychologist, educator and superintendent, Robinson learned that building a collaborative, open school culture can make a tremendous difference.

“We have worked hard over the past five years to build a collaborative culture and it wasn’t until recently did I realize how important that was,” said Robinson. “Because of that culture people, staff, stepped in and met without me and said, ‘What are things we need to do?’”

After working so closely with educational leaders and politicians in Washington, Robinson said she was grateful to those politicians who listened openly and wanted to learn more about what actually goes on in public schools.

“They didn’t totally understand what goes on in schools,” she said. “And some of the decisions they were making, in terms of accountability, were based of a business model and not really understanding what it’s like for kids.”

Of course there are still those who have different ideas as to what fosters a successful school environment. Many politicians pushed for arming teachers and school staff, deploying the National Guard to protect schools, or stashing high-powered weapons on school grounds to prepare for another potential tragedy.

“Arming teachers is ridiculous,” said the superintendent. “Guns have no business in a school. They should not be around children. The liability is incredible and I would never want to be in a school where a teacher accidentlly shot a student.”

                                                      ALSO: GOP Proposes Arming California Teachers

The schools chief again encouraged the notion of normalcy. Turning a school into a fortress is not normal, nor should it be. And at a time when the national conversation on school safety has turned to school culture, an armed school sends a certain message.

“Within any school you feel what that school is about,” she said. “You go into some places and it’s instantly comfortable, a kid place. There’s a culture there.

Robinson realized that routine is also a critical aspect to a student's success. Many Newtown students were thankful to return to school last month after the shooting, she said. Particularly the high schoolers.

“In the midst of this recovery I think its best to do what is good for students and that’s to give them back their activities, sports and friends,” she said. “Give them a sense of normalcy and a sense of control over their own lives.”

Before the Newtown tragedy, Robinson said she considered an offer to leave her position as the schools superintendent, but decided to remain to give the town “consistent leadership” at such an unsettling time. Although she did not disclose specifics, she confrimed that she will be “entertaining other opportunities" when her contract expires next June. 

“It’s not because I want to leave Newtown, but because there are other challenges I can take on,” she said.

The shooting in Newtown has spurred a variety of emotional, heated debates about what is best for our schools, and one clear answer continues to allude us. Robinson wants to see programs that teach students to "understand one another," and she hopes school districts realize the power a strong community holds above more armed guards.

Robinson said she has learned a great deal from that tragedy, especially the strength it takes to continue functioning day-to-day.

"It's the thing I've been thinking so much about after this," said Robinson. "How do we teach children resiliency?"

Read more of Neon Tommy's coverage on Newtown, Conn.

Reach Editor At Large Brianna Sacks here



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