K-12

OPINION: As ex-student kills 17 in Florida, a Vermont principal asks if educators can help avert school shootings

Knowing the child builds understanding and trust

People are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting at the school that reportedly killed and injured multiple people on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida.

People are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting at the school that reportedly killed and injured multiple people on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida.

Americans are finding it tough to think about anything but Wednesday’s horrific school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. It is the deadliest since 26 people died in Newtown Connecticut in 2012. Can we reverse this horrific pattern of nationwide violence? In a letter to teachers in his school, a principal offered his ideas on how to create meaningful change through empathy and understanding nationwide. His edited letter is reprinted here:

Dear Colleagues,

I watched the news about the killings in a Florida high school on a plane as I flew away from Vermont, away from you and away from my own children.

I’m not writing a school safety memorandum. And I’m not saying those are not important. I’m sharing here a reflection that I can’t share in person with you tomorrow.

On MSNBC, the anchor interviewed a teacher named Melissa, who teaches creative writing at the school. She told the world how confident she was that the faculty and students followed school safety procedure with precision.  “I don’t think we could have been any more prepared,” the teacher said, before beginning to cry.

And it could happen at any school.

The anchor asked the teacher about the shooter, a former student, once expelled from the school: what did she know about him?  She didn’t know anything about him. This is to be expected at a school of that size, that most students will be not-known to most other faculty, staff and students.

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The anchor then turned back to questions Melissa would know the answers to: her experience, what she saw, how many children sheltered in her classroom. Other interviewees, in other segments of the coverage, also spoke of what they knew.

Doctors detailed injuries and fatalities. They knew more than they would say about the injuries — out of respect for the victims. Students were interviewed about what they knew. The mayor was interviewed about what she knew of the school, a great school she said. She was a judge at a debate competition there just last weekend.

The great unknown throughout the coverage was: who is this boy accused of the violence? Details are emerging, and we will get to know who he was — but of this I am certain already: not enough people knew him well enough.

Know the child.

The circle is the elemental shape of human knowing: the round face that looks into mine, the circle eyes that see into mine, the circle of arms in embrace, the wider circles we form in community, in classrooms, in democratic exchange.

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A school’s strength is in how well we know each student, how strong are the bonds we make, how frequent the circles for listening, knowing, learning.

Continue in your strength, my colleagues, which is knowing the children well.  Those of you who welcomed me when I was hired seven years ago: this is why I joined you.  Those of you whom I have hired: this is why you are here.  Continue to know them, their families, their hopes and pains, their needs and questions.  Continue to support each other in this work.  It is work that has another name: love.

Share this with students if you wish, if that is what they need.  I trust you’ll know what they need.  I trust you.

Elijah Hawkes is Co-Principal at Randolph Union High School in Randolph, Vermont.  He was founding principal of the James Baldwin School in New York City. Twitter: @ElijahHawkes

Letters

T. Elijah Hawkes

T. Elijah Hawkes is Co-Principal at Randolph Union High School in Randolph, Vermont.  He was founding principal of the James Baldwin School in New York… See Archive

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