Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

A World With Truly Safe Schools Is Possible

How human rights education can help end school shootings
By Rebecca Stephens — September 12, 2022 5 min read
Image of a chalk heart on a cracked pavement.
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April 20, 1999. Columbine. It was the birth of a tragic new era that we never could have imagined before: an age of increasingly regular mass shootings perpetrated by students. Even after that first shooting, I could not have imagined a day when the call to arm teachers would be seen as a logical response to keep children safe in schools or when parents would be restrained by police as they attempted to rush into a school in Texas to save elementary-aged children from an active shooter.

I could not have imagined that schools would traumatize students with active-shooter simulation drills, lockdowns, and metal detectors. I could not have imagined the fear that accompanies parents as we drop our children off at school or stand in front of the classroom to teach.

All of this is our new reality. As teachers, parents, and citizens, we must respond by paving the way for a different future—a future without school shootings. Before you dismiss this call as naive or overly idealistic, let us look at historic examples of change.

When we are traumatized, as we all are in the wake of this seemingly endless stream of mass shootings, it is sometimes difficult to imagine a better world. There is a sense of fatalism. Or worse, a tendency to just blindly react. What gives me hope, however, is the knowledge that we have fought against seemingly impossible injustices in the past because visionaries dared to imagine a different future.

Before 1954, when Thurgood Marshall argued in Brown v. Board of Education that separate schools were not equal, many people could not have imagined integrated schools. Before 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, many people could not have imagined a world where women could vote.

These and other landmark shifts in the public imagination were preceded by acts considered revolutionary at the time, such as when Vivian Malone and James Hood entered the University of Alabama despite the vitriolic objections of George Wallace, then governor of Alabama, and armed state troopers. Because of their bravery, it is harder to imagine that level of publicly sanctioned bigotry than it is to imagine integrated schools, though of course we still have important strides to make toward education equity.

Or consider the vision of suffragettes like Alice Paul and Inez Milholland who in March 1913 led over 5,000 women on a march on Washington to demand that women be granted the right to vote and continued the parade despite over 100 women being assaulted by violent bystanders and later hospitalized. Because of their courage and willingness to act, it is harder to imagine a time when women would be attacked for wanting to be a part of our democracy than it is to imagine women fully participating in civic discourse, though we still have important strides to make toward equality for all Americans.

What would it take, then, to imagine that the students we are entrusted with teaching are not the same ones we are asked to assess as potential threats?

If we can make progress against these historic grave injustices through a new vision and sustained action, then surely we can turn our collective will toward imagining a world without school shootings. A world where our students and teachers are all protected, both mentally and physically.

What would it take, then, to imagine that the students we are entrusted with teaching are not the same ones we are asked to assess as potential threats? How do we get there?

As a former 7th grade English teacher and now program manager for human-rights education at the advocacy organization Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, I have personally witnessed two powerful interventions that will help bring us to this better world: 1) creating a culture of human rights within schools that encourages empathy and 2) empowering students to speak up against injustices. Empathy is not an inherent character trait but a learned skill that must be taught and modeled.

Many schools have already recognized this and have invested significant time and resources into integrating social-emotional learning into the school day. For example, 27 states have officially adopted the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) K-12 SEL competencies. Promising research into the efficacy of SEL shows that teaching students empathy, self-control, and problem-solving skills leads to reduced violence in schools and less hate speech. SEL is one part of a strategic approach to helping students develop the skills they need to moderate emotions and resolve conflicts.

When taught within a human-rights framework, SEL not only teaches students emotional regulation but explicitly encourages them to take transformative action resulting from their improved sense of empathy, efficacy, and agency. This framework uses the stories of human-rights defenders as part of the curriculum to help students understand that change is possible. These lessons, coupled with classroom discussions that guide students toward imagining a more hopeful future and activities that help them to become engaged in their communities, discourage isolation and despair that have led to so much violence and self-harm.

Common-sense safety measures like gun control are part of the solution to stopping the violence in our schools, but they aren’t the full solution. When we focus solely on gun control, we miss the larger, foundational issue at hand—that we need to fundamentally reimagine how we teach our students to relate to one another and the world around them.

To get to the imagined future where we have eradicated the plague of school shootings, we need to arm educators not with guns but with the tools to teach empathy and empower students. We need to invest in high-quality mental health care in schools and reduce class sizes so that teachers can focus on teaching the whole student, an arrangement that is better for both teachers and students.

Human-rights education, which includes SEL, is the bridge between the reality of the present and our imagined future where the dignity and worth of all people (including teachers) is taught and protected. While this might seem revolutionary or idealistic, someday human-rights education will be seen as simply a matter of fact—like the end of de jure segregation and female disenfranchisement. We can do this. We have done it before. I have hope.

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