photo (9)Folks coming on campus at Diegueño thread through a grove of eight shade trees as they pass low slung buildings that one new teacher compared to the architecture she’d seen in Big Bear. Past the trees, campus opens up onto thoroughfares widened by Proposition AA construction and green lawns where students eat lunch and socialize between classes. We have a brand new media center, with furniture that reflects the playful attitude of middle school and amazing technology ready to help kids learn. New walls have been painted, new lunch tables with umbrellas dot campus. Heck, even the teachers are handsome and pretty. And to get to this land of plenty you have to pass a wall of bars as welcoming as those at a federal penitentiary.

I like it.

Years in education have made me a bit of a school safety wonk. I’m the fellow who actually enjoys Safety Committee meetings. I get jazzed about scheduling duck and cover drills, and hold a stopwatch when we practice an evacuation, always hoping for a better time. When I see the new gates we’ve put in at the front of the school I see safety. I see security. I see a clear demarcation of the line between the world of school and the world beyond. Inside those gates we make the magic of education; outside carries the uncertainty that our education prepares us for.

Sometimes safe isn’t convenient; it takes longer to walk through the main administration building, check in, and then go on campus than it would for someone simply to stroll on. Sometimes safe isn’t aesthetic; I’m looking forward to getting some vinyl signs on the new fences to soften the look a bit. But safety is, well …safe. And that trumps convenience or looks.

Attitudes toward campus design have evolved over the past few decades, as schoolhouses ceased looking like the classical structures kids see in Richard Scarry books. Now campuses are more open, with spaces for students to congregate and an understanding that we’re better off when we have more room for students to interact than might be seen in the narrow hallways of Disney tween sitcoms.

Even in the three decades since Diegueño was built the world around us has prompted school designers to create distinct boundaries to campuses and improved gates and fences to deter non-student access.

These adjustments to our infrastructure, brought up to date on our campus with Proposition AA construction, are needed and reassuring, and even as we enjoy the new entrance and exits, educators know that a major element of school safety is the community and connections within those boundaries. Students who look out for one another help school officials prevent unsafe situations. Creating a climate that is connected (students, teachers, and all members of the school community) is as important as solid gates or deterring walls.

And it looks better.

So our ASB organizes activities to help students smile, laugh, and know each other. Our teachers get to know their students as they discuss everything from coding to creativity, from probability to presidents. Our counselor and campus supervisor join my assistant principal and me out at lunch, where fist bumps and high fives outnumber telling kids to pick up trash, and it’s more likely to see a student giving our assistant principal advice about fantasy football than it is hearing him tell a student to behave. Skinned knees in our health office are treated with conversation as well as bandages, and I’ve seen students arrive early to school to talk books with the fantastic Mrs. Coy in our library, “the family room of campus.” It’s these connections that create the environment where when someone sees something she says something, where teachers and students look out for one another, and where we get a sense of belonging to a community greater than ourselves.

All the while our staff wear photo IDs, volunteers have name tags, and parents coming on campus sign in and are issued identification badges. Vigilance and welcoming stand side by side at Diegueño.

I’m a fan of the new gates on campus, and the other measures that are part of the important work we do. But as I talk safety, it’s important for me to remember that the best safety is a connected community, and the best way to begin a day at school is to greet people outside the gates, where the first thing they see at Diegueño is a smile.

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