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School Safety: The #1 Reason We Have Unsafe Schools …and how to shift it

It’s time to hold the education system accountable for safe schools and learning environments and the primary change needed is not what you think.

The U.S. by far has had more school shootings than any other industrialized country.1  Since the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018, (and more recently the horror in Uvalde with 21 killed) which left 17 people dead, there has been a serious debate on why these shootings are happening and how to keep our students safe. The U.S. government has turned to a Federal Commission on School Safety to take on this challenge. They issued a report in December 2018 that recommended the following:

  • Improving school climate through character education and combating cyberbullying;
  • Improving school-based access to mental health and counseling services;
  • Taking steps to improve threat assessment; and
  • Improving school security plans.

There have been mixed reviews about this report. Some believe there’s not enough being recommended on “HOW” to prevent violence in the schools, and others point out that they are leaving out gun control.2-3  No matter the reaction to this report or what their recommendations are, there is only one question in the minds and hearts of our board and staff at i.b.mee. (I Be Me), –”What is the root cause of this serious challenge?” At i.b.mee. (I Be Me), we are about researching and developing a new framework of education that takes care of not only the root cause of violence, but the root cause of just about all the challenges our young people face today, which are many. Epidemics of teen suicide, chronic disease, addiction, incarceration, dropping out of school, ADD and depression, (just to name a few) are widespread, not only in the U.S., but in other countries as well.  

It is critical that we get to the bottom of these challenges and quit putting a band-aid on them. I was told a story when I was in one of my college health and wellness courses that depicts this concept really well. There was a medical doctor standing by a river and all of a sudden he sees a person coming down the river drowning. He goes in and pulls the person out and performs CPR and saves her. Then he sees another person drowning and he pulls him out and does CPR and saves him. Then, here comes another and he saves her, and then another, and he saves him, and then there are so many he can’t save them all. A wise person walks by the doctor as he sits there exhausted and wondering what to do and says, “Hey Doc, why don’t you go upstream and see who is throwing them in?”

What is upstream to young people’s challenges, especially school shootings? The root cause has little to do with school security plans and taking steps to improve threat assessment or gun control, although these are great steps in reducing violent crimes ending in massacres, and must occur also. There is always room for safety improvements and we could discuss gun control for months because there is so much to talk about. (i.e. discussing the research about the other countries who have had sound gun control policies that really work). However, we must go deeper; we must go upstream to understand that this is a human-being and connection issue.

This is a personal issue. The root cause of these challenges stem from something more hidden, -the lack of positive self-worth and a sound, loving self-concept. People who hurt others and hurt themselves don’t really know themselves, believe in themselves, or most importantly, they don’t love themselves. This can sound a little “woo-woo” and unscientific to many. Believe me, it has taken me years of study to get to a place of scientifically understanding what humans need to thrive, -to be healthy, and to feel happy and successful in life, and want to positively contribute to a flourishing society. There is a plethora of research in Psychology, Neuroscience, Wellness, Psychoneuroimmunology, Epigenetics, and other disciplines that tend to all boil down to the fact that the more we learn to accept and love ourselves and feel safe to do so, the more we give and connect with others and want everyone to be successful too. We actually will then support each other in our goals and dreams and work toward a common good, and want to be a part of safe learning and growing environments.

Yes, …although the act of Nikolas Cruz, who shot the individuals at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, (and Salvador Ramos in Uvalde) was deemed “evil”, we must remember that, he, the boy, is not evil. His actions were horrible and not right and anyone who does something like this need time away from society. However, we know, theoretically, that people just don’t usually shoot and kill people just to do it. Something had to have happened to them in his past that in some way, made them feel not “good enough” or “not belonging” in some way. It is common knowledge now that Nikolas was held back a grade a couple of times, had been expelled, and his mother had died. Scientifically, we know that traumatic experiences like Nikolas had, without nurturing, positive support to make sense of them and not to blame himself (which would be normal for a child), could cause any kid to act out negatively and even be violent, and not only that, but also increase their risks of having chronic disease, addictions, ADD/ADHD, depression, etc. -that list of challenges we started with at the beginning of this blog. 4-7

It is imperative that as adults, we learn how to connect with all students and make school (and home) about building a child’s positive self-concept and high self-worth. In value-science, they call this putting the intrinsic value of the person first and not “making” them to have to “do” something to prove their worth, and that all humans are born totally capable, creative and complete. Research unequivocally shows that the more we focus on learning and growing from within a child’s true interests, and they get connected support in times of challenges by not being judged for mistakes and empowering them to see their strengths, then they will form healthy belief systems, values and self-worth as well as naturally be intrinsically motivated to learn the life skills to move them forward successfully in life.8-10  Truthfully, we don’t even need research to know that this is just common sense.

But is it easier said then done. Our media and other societal outcomes such as competition and looking and being the best, tend to overshadow having value just for being human, -and the archaic philosophy of the current education system is not helping either.

Currently, students who come to school and don’t fit into the current prescribed “success mold” are tossed around and made to fit in, which can create more disempowering beliefs about themselves and increase toxic stress and trauma in their brains and bodies. The goal of the conventional education system is to try to fit everyone into one square hole when we are made up of circles, squares, triangles, and octagons. When we expel a student who is already feeling “bad” about him/herself, then this just reinforces and deepens their unconscious disempowering belief systems about themselves. That young person automatically believes and even sometimes will say, “Of course I’m being expelled….what’s new!” It creates further lack of self-worth. Punishment only exasperates the negative behaviors (for the most part), which are caused by their disempowering beliefs and feelings which most people don’t even know they have, they are so ingrained. What young people believe, they will act out. Quite simply, how we behave to get connection from others, is in general, how we will behave to get that connection again. And, against most adults belief systems, the child is not misbehaving on purpose just to get the adult riled up; they are misbehaving because it works to get attention or they are acting out how the feel inside.

Theoretically, people like Nikolas shoot people because their past experiences have caused so much pain and anger that didn’t get paid attention to. It becomes bottled up in their nervous system which can cause so much shame within themselves that they on some level they are not aware of, “dislike” themselves so much, they want to cause pain on others. In that moment of shooting, Nikolas is more than likely (unconsciously) letting out his pain in the only way he knew. (There are other factors to why people commit violent acts, but we are focusing in on what we believe is the root cause.)11-12

So, in the U.S., we are just in the beginning stages of changing how we treat kids that don’t fit in to the current school system, and/or have traumatic events that occur at home that have an effect on their social, emotional and psychological ability to handle life’s challenges in a resilient way. I feel that students who don’t fit in the “box” at school, have so much brilliance to offer but the way the system is structured, (one-size-fits-all) does not allow them to unleash this brilliance. In fact, research shows that in general, students who make average grades and who make a point to learn what they love, and take part in a variety of activities in the real world, thrive more in life.13  Students who learn how to just become “A”-students, and spend their time “making the grade” (who I call professional students) are more likely to suffer more in the real world, because the real world is not “A”-student-like; the real world likes students who have learned how to make decisions on their own, are resilient, can collaborate, take ownership for their behaviors, love to learn, can persevere in the face of challenges, are passionate about what they do, and can use their unique creativity and talents to contribute.

Imagine an entire school of students and teachers, free to be themselves, free from judgment, learning social and emotional skills, working on their passions and learning pertinent skills in a healthy and stress free environment growing their worth, confidence and skills to be themselves. Hard to see this vision? Absolutely. At i.b.mee., we see it clearly and have seen it happen even in the most challenged neighborhoods. We see many establishments already understanding and applying new-paradigm information effectively and creating learning environments that build the most important thing, the self-worth and confidence of the child, -the freedom to be themselves and learn from their mistakes. This has nothing to do with test scores, achievement, competition, or sitting in desks and doing what the system tells you to do all the time. Having to yell and control a class is not empowering or fun for the teacher! It has everything to do with creating a connected, inspiring learning environment where the inherent needs of our young people and their teachers and administrators are TRULY being met.

Unfortunately, I see it all the time, schools and school districts giving lip-service to what we know children need to thrive. The words “safe-school”, “empowerment”, “whole-child”, “mindfulness”, “social-emotional learning”, “compassion”, “wellness” and “student-centered” are words often stated in a school’s mission and philosophy, but when you participate in the day to day life of the school, they are not actually implementing those concepts, or if they are, they are implemented by a person “telling” the kids something or making that concept an add-on in the curriculum, instead of the students experiencing them as part of the everyday values and life in their school.

I have found that not being able to apply these concepts in schools is not being done purposefully, but administration and educators have not been trained nor have they been in environments like these in order to know how to apply these concepts into everyday life. In addition, old-paradigm education system rules and guidelines based on standardized curriculum, testing and controlling teaching methodologies, take precedent over the true needs of the student. We are not to blame the school or staff, or parents, but the education system (and old, outdated, parenting systems) which sets up disempowering and detrimental expectations and trainings that create unrealistic teacher and staff beliefs about what kids need to thrive, and that actually undermine intrinsic motivation, creativity, contribution, partnership, connection and passion.

We see learning environments where all students are intentionally empowered with teachers and administration that are also intentionally empowered. We have been researching in schools, taking risks, talking to students, and determining how to get to this root cause, -how to truly build positive self-worth so that every student knows who they are, moves forward with what they are excited about, takes ownership of how to get there, and works collaboratively in teams to positively support each other’s goals. We know that this creates “internal nervous system resilience” so that they have the ability to handle real world challenges with life skills that employers really want and need. These skills are not what employers are generally getting right now from college graduates. These skills are needing to be integrated into the everyday life of students starting in preschool.

The good news, is that I’m seeing things slowly starting to shift. I see bits and pieces of the new learning and living paradigm all over the world, -healthy and empowering learning environments being brought to life (improving school climate). They all look different, but they all have one thing in common, they are bringing to life the concepts and principles that truly make young people thrive. Part of the system change will be bringing updated, effective practices such as life and well-being coaching into the schools that compliment mental health services that are highly needed in all of our schools right now. Our country should be adding money to mental health and coaching services for our schools.  It obviously is not enough change yet, to prevent these horrible acts of violence in schools.

It is embarrassing that we STILL run our education system the way we do in the U.S. knowing what we know. It is like having a cure for cancer, violence, addiction and suicide right in front of you, but no one uses it because people and organizations with power who have false knowledge and mistaken beliefs know it will keep them from controlling the masses, and making money (on standardized testing and core curriculum for example), so they don’t allow anyone to use it. Although we are making some strides in shifting from the old paradigm to the new paradigm of education, it will be up to the people in the trenches, the students, teachers, administrators and parents to use their voice for change as we all come together over the next 5 years to “demand” that our kids and teachers are allowed learning environments that we know will lead to healthy, empowered, connected, creative, supportive and peaceful people which will in turn, (it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand this) will create and maintain a healthy and peaceful world.

When the education system shifts, the whole world will shift.

I truly believe it.