Liam Day, a former teacher and school administrator, responds to the challenge of keeping students safe at school in the wake of two deadly shootings.
In Jacksonville, Florida on Tuesday, a teacher who had been fired earlier in the day returned to Episcopal High School with an assault rifle. He shot the headmistress, fatally wounding her, then turned the gun on himself.
Of course, this comes only a week after the shooting outside Cleveland, where T.J. Lane walked into the cafetaria at Chardon High School and shot five students, killing three.
I used to be a school administrator. So I respond to the two tragedies at both a human and an administrative level. From an administrative perspective, the tragedy that occurred at Episcopal High School is a workplace incident, a disgruntled employee seeking revenge on an employer he may have deemed treated him unfairly, desperately seeking someone, anyone, on whom to take out his frustration, and, in that context, this incident probably does not differ terribly from other workplace tragedies of its kind.
I remain in a position of responsibility for the welfare of young people. Though I am no longer a school administrator, I run a K-12 workforce development program that can have up to 160 youth on site at any one time. I can tell you with all sincerity that incidents like Tuesday’s and the shooting last week scare me.
I am not scared that I might be harmed. To be honest, that I might be harmed does not even factor into my thinking, which is odd because, my father, who was a teacher for almost 35 years in the Boston Public Schools, was stabbed twice and held up at gunpoint another time walking out of school. He finally retired from teaching after wrestling a gun from a student. My mother finally put her foot down.
What scared me as the administrator of a 300-student middle school, what scares me as the director of a 160-student workforce development program, is this: first and foremost I am responsible for the safety and welfare of those students for the duration of time they are attending my school or program.
That is the baseline. Whether those students ever learn a thing in my care comes second. What comes first is that each and every day every one of those students will walk in the door to their house or apartment safely – one hundred percent of the students one hundred percent of the time. There is no room for error.
Loss is a common aspect of almost all business. Retail stores budget for some loss due to theft. This winter GM announced a small recall of 4,000 Chevrolets to check the brake pads. Just this week Toyota announced a much larger recall of 680,000 vehicles.
Over the last two decades, companies of all sizes and stripes have used quality management techniques to improve their processes – some to six sigma, which translates to a quality achievement rate of 99.9999997 percent, or only 3.4 defects per million products produced, which is, in the scheme of things, an astounding rate of quality achievement. Unfortunately, it isn’t nearly good enough in education.
There are in a school more tasks than hours: planning, assessment, professional and curriculum development, administrative paperwork, parent communication, student discipline, individualized instruction. All of it essential to the mission to educate each and every child, which is the measure by which teachers and administrators are judged.
Far more important, though, is the baseline – the safety and welfare of the students in our care. We are not judged by that baseline. No one congratulates us if 100% of the students in our care remain safe. To be blunt, few people even notice. No one wants to think about the unthinkable until they have to think about it. But that’s an awfully high tight rope to be walking without a net. And that, more than anything, is what scares me.
Photo courtesy of Like_the_Grand_Canyon