Serving with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, I learned an important lesson about security: Sometimes, the more you sought to protect yourself, the less secure you became.
The more you wrapped yourself in armor to patrol “foreign” territory, the more you alienated yourself from local residents — and the less willing they were to trust or confide in you.
It was while I was deployed that I read about the murder of a young man on his way home from Fenger High School. He was an innocent bystander, one of many such victims of Chicago’s gang wars. As a native Chicagoan with two young children, this shooting was my wake-up call. After completing six years of active military duty, I decided to return to my home city to help protect and support its young people.
With a master’s degree in management and leadership, I found a job as an administrator at a public charter school on Chicago’s West Side.
Seven years later, I serve as director for student culture and support for the Noble Network of Charter Schools. We serve 12,000 Chicago Public School students at 18 campuses across our city, most of them on the South and West Sides. All of our schools have in place strong security protocols. We have well-developed plans for “soft” and “hard” lockdowns and open lines of communication with the Chicago Police Department.
What we don’t have, however, are metal detectors or uniformed security guards patrolling our hallways. And we absolutely would not allow the arming of our teachers.
Such steps would communicate the wrong message to our students and educators. Our schools are places for learning through great instruction, early intervention and relationships built on trust. Armed teachers would send a negative message to students that detracts from their focus on learning, growth and success.
Let’s face it: the biggest source of school shooters is alienated and isolated young men – not unlike many of the insurgents we faced in Afghanistan. By the time they have taken up arms, it’s often too late to stop the violence. We can’t arm our way out of this situation, just as we couldn’t armor our way out of it in Afghanistan.
The more we drove around in our Humvees, wearing our sunglasses and body armor, the more we alienated ourselves from the people. Achieving real security required us to get out of our armored cars, take off our sunglasses, and engage members of the community in face-to-face conversation. Many times, security was built over a cup of tea, not an M-16.
Those same lessons apply within our school communities. Every adult in our schools seeks to know our students and to establish relationships with them. Every student has a dedicated staff adviser – whether a teacher, coach or mentor – who provides a positive, adult presence in their lives. This builds trust with our student body. Sending our students into classrooms with gun-toting teachers would diminish the sense of security and trust that we have worked so hard to achieve.
Real school security can’t be established at the point of a gun. It grows from dedicated teachers providing great instruction in a safe and supportive environment, where every student knows there is at least one adult who knows them well and cares deeply about them. Such an environment encourages students to share troubling information, whether it involves their own lives or those of their classmates.
It’s good that a national conversation is taking place today about how to secure our schools and protect our children. And it’s especially important that so many students are actively involved. Certainly, there are commonsense steps we can and should take.
But my experience tells me the answer isn’t turning our schools into armed encampments; it’s empowering educators to become fully invested in their instruction and the lives of their students. Rather than walking each day into a fortress, students should be entering a place of trust and support where they can focus on learning and growing.
The truth is that any school, including those I support, could be the next target. But we stand a greater chance of preventing more tragedies by building school cultures that are founded on trust among teachers and students. That’s not as quick or visible as arming teachers. There is no “silver bullet” to secure our schools, but the answer surely is not more bullets in the classroom.
Mark Hamstra is director of Student Culture & Support at Noble Network of Charter Schools.
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