The Naked Truth/Jamala Rogers
Restoring the Sanctity of School
Once upon a time, schools were the cornerstone of a neighborhood. They were safe places where children had fun, got some learning and made memories for life. Kids spent most of their waking hours at school. It’s where they got breakfast, lunch and vaccinations. It’s where they joined classmates on field trips, participated in school plays and competed in extracurricular activities. That idyllic model is slowly fading as violence and mental health issues infiltrate school environments.
In St. Louis, we recently marked a year since our first school shooting on October 24, 2022. That same week in Madison, tensions among students escalated to threats of violence. Three East High students were arrested when guns were found in their possession. Young people keep trying to tell us something, but grown folks are just not listening.
A year out and the St. Louis community is still seeking answers to the tragic shooting where a beloved teacher and popular student were killed by a former student. Several students were injured. An entire community was traumatized. Police have refused to release the school surveillance video and no trauma-informed recovery plan for healing has been made public. It would be reassuring to hear that an inter-agency protocol for school shootings has been reviewed and updated to address missteps and gaps on the day of the shooting. Trauma doesn’t go away on its own; people need guided support to work through it.
East High students allegedly brought two loaded guns to school. The juveniles were summarily arrested. It’s difficult for me to know from a distance what their states of mind were on that day. I do know that the incident and the consequences will be life-altering for the young people and their families.
When it is clear from behaviors that something is brewing beneath the surface, young people are often greeted with attitudes of no tolerance, more police and no social workers. The disconnect between troubled youth and treatment is growing. Our society is not paying attention to prevention and diversion even when youth tell us in so many ways that they need help.
Schools definitely are not what they used to be, but it’s not too late to turn them into what they should be. First we need to know what’s happening and why. There is a brain drain of committed teachers from the field. There’s a national crisis in school attendance. Connecting these two dots could be quite revealing.
Wisconsin set up a task force to study its chronic absenteeism. State Representative Amy Binsfeld (R) chairs the Speaker's Task Force on Truancy. According to Binsfield, three reasons rose to the top of the list. They are mental health issues (specifically anxiety), homelessness and violence. These are some of the same issues that are forcing an exodus of teachers. Yet these issues are in our control to resolve.
Public schools are at a crossroads, especially those in urban areas. Decision-makers and policy-shapers must step up with a different kind of plan for educating our children and creating the environments that enhance learning. They’ll need a big push from the community to take corrective action.
Students are staying away from schools because they don’t feel valued, and they no longer see the value in education. This tells us the starting point for reimagining public schools must put students at the center. First, we must get students in a safe and supportive building, then keep them there with the sheer joy of learning.