Resilience is best defined in practice as the ability to recover. It's a hard topic to bring up regarding school violence prevention - no doubt - but important when we can recognize success stories. After all, when we talk about tragedies in schools, and prevented ones, this restorative element can be lost amidst all the other voices and stories.
This concept of resilience is such an awesome thing to see. Take it from Javaughntay Burroughs, who was injured in a September 30, 2014 school shooting at Fern Creek High School. He displays the awesome qualities of resilience.
To an audience at his school's Story Slam! event, Javaughntay said,
"Resilience means a time that you got up from... Here I am today, full recovery. Back in school. Thank God for giving me another chance at life."
And what can his courage - and his school's courage - teach us collectively as a nation? Quite a lot, I am sure. Special thanks are to Randi Skaggs, Elizabeth Canale, along with the Fern Creek High School administration for organizing this valuable and rewarding event.
It's been two and a half years, and counting, since the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. Foundations have been started, families and communities have mourned, and books have been written. In March, the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission also completed their final report. It was a comprehensive analysis with holistic, positive recommendations, which built on earlier recommendations from that commission's interim report.
Overall, the Advisory Commission's report centers around building resilience, also thought of as durability or sustainability, for ongoing as well as future efforts of school violence prevention. And it involves a heightened level of care in schools and beyond their four walls.
Building communities of care, and nurturing those already in existence, involves a shift in the societal focus away from what I can gain and toward what society can gain. And this focus on others includes developing the "well-being and resilience of children, adults, families and communities" (Final Report, p. 85).
The Advisory Commission's report added:
Caring, resilient communities are best positioned to help members recover from individual challenges as well as from disasters affecting larger groups. Recovery should focus on the centrality of individuals, families and communities; promote autonomous functioning throughout life; and champion social connectedness and engagement for all children and adults.
(Final Report, p. 196)
Thus, much collaboration will be needed for that kind of shift to take place in a society that prides itself on competition, winning, and continually ascertaining who is best. After all, in a community-minded approach, the whole group becomes best when it is focused on the support of all of its members.
Talking about resilience should challenge the depth of a culture of care in our communities. Who might be left out? How are positions of power exercised on those who lack it (the power differential)? And what can each agency (education, law enforcement, mental health) do to continually improve so that resilience is not a final point of a journey, but rather is a daily reality for each of its members?
That said, it is essential that we remember the prudent words of President Barack Obama during the Sandy Hook Prayer Vigil just a couple days after that tragedy in 2012, where he said,
"These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true... But that can't be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this."
So what do we do? How do we bring sustainable change in this generation?
We cannot wait for more unconscionable acts to occur. Instead, we need to kindle and refresh a heightened sense of urgency in every sector of education. The solutions are our job.
After all, this is our generation. These are our schools, and this is a problem that has occurred on our collective watch. I would think that every family who has lost a child would want us as a nation to develop, implement, and monitor an effective national plan for lethal school violence prevention.
Last month, I shared a Lethal School Violence Prevention Framework primarily for schools, districts, and states to consider as they build resilience in preventing student threats.
Contained in the framework document are probing questions, and it is only a part of a much larger dialogue needed in states - but I always believe that our best approaches to prevention really deal with working towards answers. And so we need to be asking the right questions.
But in order to developing resilience in lethal school violence, consistent, scalable solutions need to be made more accessible.
That said, work at the state level is benefited by greater coordination and collaboration. Michigan has set up a school threat tip line, Okay2Say, which also includes a mobile app students to use anonymously and preemptively. It unites law enforcement agencies, schools, and students in facilitating safe school practices. Michigan's Okay2Say model was inspired by the earlier program, Safe 2 Tell, used in Colorado schools. Also, Missouri and Kansas have similar programs for students and schools. The great news is that such state-level interventions also bring with them reductions in bullying behaviors and greater situational awareness for schools. Other states need these.
In addition to the idea of empowering the voices of students and schools through tip lines or mobile apps for prevention, there are other types of important interventions. For example, Virginia has enacted state policy for the organization of threat assessment teams in schools. These teams are set up in a similar way to what was later recommended by the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, and involve school stakeholders who are responsible to collecting, analyzing, and responding appropriately to building level threats, concerns, and related safety issues at the building level.
Virginia's model is evidenced-based and endorsed by the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP) in leading to greater safety in schools. As such, the Virginia's approach towards threat assessment teams should be actively considered by other states because currently they are the only state across the U.S. to have such a requirement in all of their public schools.
It should be noted that many law enforcement agencies across the 50 states have well-developed active shooter response systems currently in place. And they are like a fine watch - we often hear about them because these systems are functioning correctly and helping encourage staff in quickened responses to existing threats and incidences. But are they perfect? Are they a solution in every community? While ongoing improvements are a part of every healthy system, these programs should primarily encourage a school culture to be more positively focused on well-being and safety, and not fear.
In closing part one of this two-part series, we need remember that prevention is happening every day in classrooms, locker rooms, main offices, and over the phone or email with parents. Many dedicated school professionals across this great land are taking to task President Obama's words that we all must change. Alas, the same question still remains for us: "How do we bring sustainable change in this generation?"
The second part of this series will provide guidance for districts and schools to answer this question.
Dr. Jonathan Doll is an educational researcher and school safety advocate. He is the Keynote speaker at the conference, Building Resiliency in Lethal School Violence Prevention, at Post University in Waterbury, Connecticut on May 21, 2015. He has authored the manuscript, Ending School Shootings, www.endingschoolshootings.org.