School safety is a two-fold challenge with a twist: the people on the inside that you count on to protect your students from those on the outside might themselves be the real threat. If you can’t lock the doors and keep trouble outside because you might be locking the predators inside with the students, what do you do?
Securing schools against the lone cuckoo that has some obscure grudge and a loaded gun relies on barriers; protecting against the sneak thief of innocence on the inside relies on knocking barriers down. When we hear about some administrator, teacher, or staff member who has betrayed the trust implicit in their positions of authority, our reactions are almost always cut from the same cloth: How could someone not have known? Sadly, the signs are almost always there for those with eyes to see, but the eyes are often averted or closed entirely, which leads to one inevitable question. Why?
The answer often depends on your role in the school hierarchy. Administrators might prefer to pretend there is no problem because acknowledging the problem would create a responsibility to fix it. Teachers find themselves in the unenviable position of either reporting on someone who could have them fired or on a fellow teacher who is slogging alongside them in the teaching trenches. Staff members, unless they work in the principal’s office, are often the most vulnerable employees in the school, and voicing their concerns may turn into a career-ending decision.
Thankfully, the Illinois Mandated Reporter statute provides a mechanism for anonymous reporting of suspicions to a state agency, and one would think it provides the perfect solution to overcoming the barriers that lead administrators, teachers, and staff members to keep their concerns to themselves, but this option is only as good as the will and knowledge to use it. Lacking a clear sense of purpose that begins with a strong working partnership between our schools and local law enforcement, a partnership that repeatedly trains everyone in a school building to think carefully about their responsibilities under the law, our Mandated Reporters may not fully understand the system and how to access it.
Of course, reports made as part of a statutory responsibility are pretty much, as the proverb goes, “locking the barn door after the horse has gone.” By the time the phone is picked up and the suspicions voiced, damage may have been done to a child. Therefore, the best way to avoid trouble might well be the equally proverbial “ounce of prevention”. What might this ounce of prevention contain? It is often said in business that success depends on the people you employ. As mundane sounding as it may be, the most effective way to make schools safer may be to insist on a more rigorous system for screening and hiring employees.
I am often astonished on how little thought goes into recruitment at our public schools and how a district’s personnel procedures can be created and managed by individuals with no experience and training as personnel professionals. What can you really learn in a 15 minute team interview when no one in the room is a trained interviewer? Just how much time is spent reviewing the experience and credentials of those to whom we entrust our children, and how much training have we given to those who do this job? A while back I spoke to a former student who was hired by a national retail chain, and I was struck by the fact that obtaining her position involved more check points prior to entry than any teaching job I ever held. Apparently hiring people to handle money requires more caution than hiring people to educate our children.
I well remember many years ago speaking with a Human Resources professional who pointed out to me that his job “seems easy only to those who do not realize I’ve spent my entire career learning how to find the most qualified person for the job”. Personnel Director is a difficult and critical position, and this task should not be traded off by our schools as a reward for loyal service to former teachers and administrators who never worked in Human Resources before taking a chair in the Central Office. The consequences can be far too grave if they do not understand the complexities and importance of the job at hand—finding the people who will create a safe and effective learning environment for our children.