In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, where 20 young children and 6 adults were killed by a gunman, the issue of school safety is on the mind of every parent and educator. No one disputes that our schools must be safe and our children must feel safe inside of them. But the debate over how to achieve that goal has become a national conversation with many ideas, from allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons to stationing attack dogs inside schools.
Here in Los Angeles, we have increased police patrols in schools and this week, Superintendent John Deasy will put a proposal before the School Board to hire 1,087 new part-time aides at elementary, middle, and span campuses. This staff will be performing security duties as well as conflict mediation. As the Los Angeles Unified School Board representative for District 4, I support adding this additional layer of security to our schools and will support adding school police officers to middle and high schools as well. But our schools and our children will not be safe until we take a holistic and comprehensive approach to ending violence by increasing mental health services and focusing on social-emotional learning models (SEL) that are proven to decrease problem behaviors and increase academic success.
SEL is not a soft approach to a hard problem. It is a scientific one and a common sense one. Numerous studies show that kids who lack basic social and emotional skills are more prone to being bullied, being bullies, and having low academic achievement. These studies also conclusively show that the kids with the highest social-emotional skills are also often the highest achievers—they have stronger GPAs and score better on standardized tests. In fact, multiple studies have found that a young child's social-emotional development is a greater predictor of future academic success than cognitive skills measured at the same age. Conversely, kids with low social-emotional skills are more prone to risky behaviors such as drinking and drugs, have higher drop-out rates, and are at greater risk for health issues including depression.
LAUSD is already a leader in the positive discipline approach that focuses on solving underlying problems rather than simply punishing. Now it is time to take that innovative strategy a step further and teach the social and emotional skills that our kids need before they need them—before they are in crisis. Incorporating more social-emotional learning into our curriculum will help every student at every level to achieve greater success and have a more positive experience at school. It helps all students to feel more confident in the safety of their environment when respect and empathy are expected behaviors from every child and adult.
Giving kids strong social-emotional skills not only addresses violence—both physical and emotional—at the root, it helps students achieve their potential. Having appropriate emotional responses, being able to empathize, having self control and being able to manage emotions, having the social tools to handle stressful situations—these are the social and emotional competencies that lead to both learning and achieving long-term life goals.
That is why it is critical we make sure we have the programs, policies and staff in place to identify and aid kids who have mental or emotional issues that could pose a danger to themselves or others to stop violence before it occurs. Parents know this. In a recent survey by The California Endowment, Californians were asked whether they believed hiring a school counselor or a police officer would be more effective at preventing violence. Sixty-seven percent of respondents said counselors would be the more effective route. Ninety-one percent said that school staff should be trained in "mental first aid" so that they can better spot warning signs.
But sadly, California ranks near the bottom in our number of counselors in schools—one for every 810 students according to a 2010 study, less than half of the national average. Here in Los Angeles, the LAUSD last year passed a resolution I authored that called for a ratio of 450 to 1 for counselors, but it remains unfunded—a promise without the will to implement it.
That needs to change. Without a comprehensive and holistic approach to ending school violence, we will be trapped in the unacceptable position of only responding to extreme situations as they happen, rather than attempting to identify and address problems before they involve guns.
School safety is a sacred trust between our schools and our parents. Focusing on social-emotional learning as a core component of academics for all kids in all neighborhoods and having the support staff in place to help kids before they resort to violence must be our priorities. If we want to change the culture of our classrooms and help Los Angeles kids to feel—and be—safe in our schools, we need to teach alternatives to violence. If our sole response to guns in schools is more security personnel, then our only plan is to stop a rampage with brute force. That is a failure of our sacred trust, and a lesson we don't need to teach.
Steve Zimmer is the LAUSD Board Member for District 4 and was part of a briefing last week for legislators in Washington, D.C. on the value of SEL in addressing violence in schools. Zimmer has also served as a school counselor and teacher.
Police cars and school buses image via Shutterstock