Rachel S. Heslin
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"Trying to solve a problem by dealing with the problem is like trying to restore moisture to a leaf by watering the leaf -- whereas the solution lies in watering the root."
-- Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

There are a lot of people pointing at the mass murder of children by gunfire as evidence that we need tighter gun control laws in the US. Would that result in fewer deaths? Quite possibly. After all, guns significantly magnify the number of deaths a single person can inflict, and it's a lot easier to wrest away a knife from an attacker than a gun for the simple fact that a gun can kill at a distance.

However, for all my sporadic sharing of my opinion on matters political, the truth is that legislation really isn't my area of interest. I am interested in nurturing the human heart, and in that respect, I agree with the pro-gun lobbyists that the real problem is not simply access to firepower. The real, underlying problem is the fear and anger and disconnect from others' (and perhaps one's own) humanity that allows someone to commit such acts of violence.

At the same time, simply bandying around the term "mental illness" isn't enough, either, as if some people are "broken" and there is little to be done about it. After all, the vast majority of those who have been diagnosed with severe disorders aren't violent. The truth is that none of us lives in a vacuum, and we all run the spectrum between resilience and disturbance. The importance of this perspective is that it greatly increases our awareness of what we can do, as individuals and as a society, to minimize the occurrence of such tragic events. And from my perspective, that means starting with those who are still children today.

I work for a school district in a small, rural, resort-town community. Some years ago, our middle school seemed headed for crisis. No one had been killed, but there were mutterings that "it just takes one." Children were caught carrying weapons that they claimed were to defend themselves because they were afraid. Teachers and staff felt helpless and beseiged. And then our community said, "No. Not here."

  • The local chapter of Soroptimists raised funds to install video cameras throughout the school to act as both a deterrent and a means of documentation. The Soroptimists also funded the creation of a Student Assistance Program Liaison position.
  • Among other services, the SAP uses the Safe School Ambassadors curriculum to help train kids to stand up for and support each other.
  • Teachers and staff worked together to conscientiously shift the school's general climate to being more open and supportive.
  • The discipline structure was expanded to include ways for students who had messed up to make amends and get back on track.
  • Staff and students were trained in conflict resolution and communication skills.
  • We were awarded grant funding to help make sure that students whose families had had to move into transitional housing could still get to school, providing supplies and means of transportation in order to help them maintain some semblance of stability in their lives.
  • The district psychologist and school counselor developed a codified Threat Assessment Procedure to help determine when a kid was just having a bad day versus when intervention needed to be escalated to a higher level.
  • There's a supervised "chill room" during lunch period for kids who just need somewhere to relax and get away from other kids for a while.
  • We had a Family Advisor who created a safe place for kids to talk about whatever was bothering them, and if it seemed like they needed more than that, they were referred to local therapists for counseling.
  • The community created more resources which took on different aspects of support. One brought in speakers for school staff, parents, and the general community to show ways that we can work together to support our kids. One agency developed a "trusted volunteer" program to train and place people in the classrooms, often working one-on-one with kids to help supplement the drastic reduction in funding that has resulted in higher student/teacher ratios. Another group works with parents and teens to help families navigate changing roles and expectations with mutual respect.
  • I'm sure there were many more contributions beyond even this that I just don't personally know about.

"These all sound great," you might be thinking, "but does it really make a difference?"

Yes. It does.

When the Student Assistance Program was first created, we started measuring rates of office-level discipline in four categories:

  • Causing, attempting, or threatening bodily harm

  • Horseplay/safety (which sometimes can either get out of hand or mask deeper issues)

  • Disruption and defiance

  • Peer problems (which also include bullying and harrassment)

In 2009, the first year that we started tracking these numbers, for the months of August through November, we had 209 incidents of students being sent to the office and disciplined for the above reasons.

In 2010, August through November, we had 135 incidents.

In 2011, again the same time period, we had 123 incidents.

This year, August through November, we had 48.


I admit that I was astonished when I ran the numbers, and I double-checked to see if we had changed the way we counted office-level discipline. The answer was no, things were still being counted in exactly the same way. The middle school really had dropped the number of serious discipline issues by 75% in three years. Kids feel safer, stronger, more connected. It really does take a village, a community that decides to think outside the box and really pull together for our kids. I am so dang proud to be a part of this, and I offer it up as evidence that yes, we can make a difference.

"Yes, but..." you may say. Yes, but I live in a rural community. We don't have a heavy gang presence. We're a really small school district and only have one middle school. Compared to the rest of the state, we're almost embarrassingly racially homogenous. We have a lot of retirees who live here and who love to volunteer.

To which I counter: "Yes, but... what if?"

What if each of us made it a priority to reach out, take that extra step, realize that test results are far less a measurement or prediction of our children's potential for success than their ability to communicate, to listen to others and to express themselves clearly, to negotiate and find common ground and creative ways of identifying and solving problems -- ?

Because it's not just our children's future that relies on this. It's our own.

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