Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#49, August 24, 1999


by Marylaine Block

As buildings go, schools and jails have always looked a bit alike, except that schools have more windows and fire escapes. They've acted kind of alike too - in both institutions, the few closely monitor the activities of the majority, exerting control with schedules, bells, and the force of law. Now, because of Columbine, principals and school boards all over the country are making this resemblance even more obvious by locking doors, hiring armed guards, and installing metal detectors and video surveillance cameras.

Once again we are going for the mechanical fix for a problem that is fundamentally a human one: in large, alienating schools where there is no trust or community, administrators have decided to "protect" kids by limiting their rights and treating them all as potentially suspect.

They are overreacting. Kids are far more likely to die in the family car than in school, far more likely to die by suicide than at the hands of classmates with guns. We pour money into expensive security systems even though the statistical odds are infinitesimal that any one school will ever have a shooting.

The real problem is the rage of those who wield the guns, and expensive security systems are no help here. There too many kids who feel sick and hopeless every morning knowing they are have no choice but to go to a place where they will be taunted, felt up, tripped on the stairs, shoved into lockers, or beaten. Nor do they have much hope of rescue, because in many schools the teachers and principals either remain oblivious or do nothing to stop the bullying. Some victims will be driven to kill themselves, more to simply despise themselves. For a few of them, despair will turn to hatred, of the bullies, and of the adults who fail to protect them.

The problem is exacerbated in the huge new consolidated schools that house 2000 kids or more. Built for economies of scale, they rarely have enough teachers and support staff. When there aren't enough adults to pay attention to each and every child, the desperate kids may never be noticed at all.

Instead of turning schools into armed camps, couldn't we turn them into communities where each child is valued? Teachers and principals all over the country have found ways to build community in even the biggest schools.

They have spent their money not on metal detectors but on enough teachers and aides so that all children have a chance to be paid attention to by at least one caring adult. Some large schools have created smaller schools within them, in which teachers stay with the same group of kids year after year, getting to know each of them well.

Some schools teach children to respect each other's differences, and make it clear that bullying will not be tolerated. They teach conflict resolution methods to the kids, and enlist them as peer mediators. They give the children a chance to become an important part of the larger community through service, reading to the blind, cleaning up rivers, tutoring younger kids.

In some schools, children do class projects in constantly shifting teams. Working together with kids they wouldn't otherwise know, they may start noticing that the geeky guy cracks really funny jokes, or that the girl with coke bottle glasses is a born peacemaker, or that the fat kid always comes up with really good offbeat ideas. The team members may not necessarily all become buddies, but they won't find it as easy to put down "outsiders" they have worked with and come to know.

Turning schools into prisons doesn't make anybody feel safer - it just makes it clearer that adults don't trust the kids, and the kids don't trust each other. If we want safe schools, we need to make them places where children are not caged but protected, trusted, and encouraged to blossom.

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