President & CEO, Character Education Partnership
As educators, we weep for our extended family in Chardon, Ohio: students, parents, teachers, counselors, administrators, law-enforcement personnel, and so many others. They are all now stricken with heart-wrenching pain and haunted by questions of what possibly could have been done to prevent the tragic deaths of three students who were shot Feb. 27 at Chardon High School. We can’t help but put ourselves into the same situation and ask ourselves if it could happen to us. Sadly, the answer is, of course, yes.
That is why our only recourse in such times is to constantly reassess our efforts to reach and teach the children with whom we have been entrusted.
Before my life in education, much of my career was dedicated to preventing the unexpected. As an Air Force officer, I led a front-line fighter squadron during the Cold War, and our work was always dangerous. My daily goal always was to prevent an accident, even as we trained to be combat-ready 24/7. Therefore, I encouraged every flyer in my unit to talk freely about mistakes, close calls, and other fears so that we could all learn from each other and improve our chances of staying safe.
Every Friday afternoon, I would call my pilots to a meeting in our squadron pub. To start things rolling, I would put a dollar on the bar and confess to a mistake or close call that I’d had earlier that week. Then, the younger pilots would take turns putting their dollars on the bar and sharing their own stories and concerns. So, each week, we all learned from one another and usually collected enough money to cover our tab.
Civilian life has been no less eye-opening. The Chardon shootings reminded me of several alarming incidents that occurred in the public schools for which I had been responsible. Over my 10 years in the role of K-12 superintendent of a charter school system in Colorado, in a district not too far from Columbine High School, I encountered both students and teachers who wanted to kill themselves, students who threatened to blow up their school, and adults who had to be banned from our campuses for inappropriate behavior. Mercifully, though, we did manage to avoid tragedy. How?
Well, I give credit to our constant efforts to create a school culture of caring and openness. With that in mind, we integrated character education fully into our curriculum, and we rolled it out across every grade level. As a result, everywhere that our 3,000-plus students turned while at school, they were met by people and experiences that encouraged them to be better human beings—ones more willing to help each other and to be engaged, caring citizens.
Our schools’ mantra was “Catch ‘em doing something good!” Toward that end, I encouraged every employee to let me know when a student or teacher had done something positive. In response, I wrote hundreds of letters and emails each semester to thank and congratulate these do-gooder students and to make sure they knew that their efforts had not gone unnoticed and were very much appreciated.
This simple practice always seemed to make a difference. One student told me that she had put my note of encouragement on her bedroom wall to remind her that someone actually cared. To underscore this message, at the start of each school year, I would let my teachers know that I would be asking every student the same question: “Who at this school cares that you succeed?” If they couldn’t give me a name, then I would know we had a problem.
With that in mind, I truly believe that the best chance any of us has of preventing future school tragedies is to know our students and know each other so well that we can “feel” when such incidents might be possible. Lots of communication. Lots of meaningful relationships between coaches, teachers, students, and parents. Such collaborative efforts can go a long way toward helping us identify people who are not well and are acting irrationally. And once warning signs are detected, they need to spur swift and decisive action.
At one of the schools I oversaw, we seized the opportunity when a group of adolescent boys used the “n-word” with one of our young ladies of color. We immediately gathered our 500 high school students in the gym and told them that we do not tolerate that kind of abusive language in our schools. I asked students to raise their hands if they had ever heard such abuse within our walls. Over 100 raised their hands. I said, “First, you need to go to your principal and confess that you have tolerated this and that you are sorry.” Looking ahead, I asked them to please have the courage to say something when they hear or see our school culture being degraded.
“What we tolerate is what we become,” I added.
Our school system was not perfect. But I am convinced that our commitment to character education greatly reduced the risk of tragedy. In partnership, students, teachers, administrators, and parents all were encouraged to share and to engage with those not living by the intentional school culture. After all, if we, as leaders in our classrooms, schools, a nd families are not shaping the culture for our children, then someone else will.