Empathy and Action

They gathered in the inner courtyard, more than five hundred strong, held hands, and stood silently for seventeen minutes. Some wore shirts expressing their point of view, #NEVERAGAIN or March for Our Lives, others simply looked the part of who they are: students, grades six through twelve, thoughtful, artistic, a little nervous, and more informed than some would expect. In a word, they were inspiring.


The event was one of three student responses to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida a month ago. The first, one of empathy, was suggested by two seniors who put up a stretch of poster paper where students could record their words of support for the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In the days after the tragedy it provided a place for students to process their own feelings while focusing on others. We’ll roll this up in a few days and send it to the school, our small voice of support in the chorus of the national conversation.

The next response suggested by students came from our student representative to the school board’s Student Advisory Committee. That group discussed what they could do to express what they were thinking and feeling in the wake of what happened in Florida, and how they could have their voices heard on the issue of school safety. The result was the idea of a letter writing campaign by students to elected officials. Our rep got right to work.

At the assembly we held to discuss school safety, our student representative stood in front of the student body and explained the importance of action alongside empathy. She deftly answered questions about the project, and ended with an invitation to join her in writing to members of congress to share their perspectives as young people who come to school every day to learn, feel safe, and become the kind of adults some of us still aspire to be.

IMG_6199There were a great many students near the table that held that letter box on March 14th, and knowing our student body, I’ll wager the perspectives and ideas shared will be as diverse, thoughtful, and articulate as our students.

But for seventeen minutes there was unity in our diversity, those seventeen silent minutes when students stood together, holding hands, thinking their own thoughts about the day, the world, and the future. When the time ended there were hugs, a few tears, and a great gathering up of teens who headed back into the schoolhouse to learn. The orderliness of it all might have astounded some, though those of us who work with students were less surprised.

The students’ poise and purpose was inspiring too, though as a dad and a principal I want to temper my genuine appreciation with a nod to the reality that these are young people who have more on their minds and a wider future than any single issue. That they will make a difference I have no doubt. That they have a vision of the future that is kinder and more inclusive than my own generation’s I believe. That this takes away the collective responsibility of anyone older than twenty I do not accept.

Just as it is unfair to paint teachers as heroes in waiting, pursuing their noble cause with inadequate pay and unreasonable expectations, because they are so selfless …which somehow makes it okay, so too it is unfair to see in our youth saviors who might take away our own responsibility to contribute to making the world what we want it to be.

Teenagers today have done much to bring a message to our national consciousness, and a part of that message seems to me to be an call to engage with our communities. Wherever folks find themselves emotionally and philosophically in the wake of the tragedy in Florida, or in fact the decades in which school names like Sandy Hook and Columbine have become synonymous with violence, I think we can take inspiration from our students today, and hear them when they invite us to put our empathy into action.


Snow Day

IMG_5984The snowball fight is over, my teenage daughter the clear winner, the banana muffins are on the cooking rack, and the kids are quietly playing Minecraft in the family room. It’s cold outside, though sunny, and I’m sitting at my desk reading about Columbine.

Outside, in the real world, the world not paused by snow, more than a hundred teenagers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are addressing the Florida legislature. As one headline read: “Florida Students Began With Optimism. Then They Spoke to Lawmakers.” There are those in politics questioning if the students are really actors, or whether because they’re teens they’ll lose interest and be sent away once they hit resistance. The people with those questions must never have spent much time with students.

As a principal and former teacher, I have seen first hand the power passionate and purposeful students can bring to the issues that inspire them. That this group of teenagers will change the world is something I would certainly not bet against.

How different this is than the tragedy in 1999 that saw fifteen students lose their lives to two shooters at Columbine High School. Today, reading journalist Dave Cullen’s thorough and heartbreaking descriptions of the tragedy in Colorado is as difficult emotionally, both as an educator and a parent, as it is important to my understanding. It is, for me, one step in the direction of trying to be the best principal I can be for my students, teachers, and families, a person with perspective, if not answers, and some kind of conception of how horrors like the one we saw happen last week come about.

I see in Cullen’s historical view of Columbine a society, particularly educators and law enforcement, still learning how to deal logistically with a new reality of students with access to high powered guns, an abundance of rage, and a mindset bent on hurting others. Reading about what happened I can’t help but see in the stories of the students and staff at Columbine parallels to the people I have worked with for the past quarter century.

In the years between Columbine and Sandy Hook the responses to school shootings, both in the way they are treated by law enforcement and educators have evolved, even as the horror and heartbreak of each subsequent event have remained just as profound. Every year we practice how to “lock down” and “lock out,” we invite police to speak to our staff and students, and we learn more how to protect our schools from events like this.

And Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

As a principal I struggle at what to tell my kids, my staff, myself about what more we can do to prevent tragedies like we have seen.

So I read. Today Columbine by Dave Cullen. Tomorrow, on the recommendation of another principal, Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings by Katherine S. Newman.

They will not have all the answers.

IMG_5962So I will talk with our school resource officer, serious, earnest, and determined; my fellow administrators, so many so talented and caring; and look for understanding and inspiration wherever I can find it.

Today I find that inspiration in those students from Florida who have transformed their wail of grief into a cry for change. I see in them hope, spring shoots rising through the cold snow, and I am inspired.


I began teaching five years before Columbine. It’s not that schools were perfectly safe then; one of my students lit the mascot on fire at an assembly during my first year of teaching, and in my third year another student tried to burn down the school. He brought gasoline and splashed it around the front doors before lighting a match. The front doors were metal, set into concrete. They power washed it the next day and arrested the student. But the reactions of students to acts of violence perpetrated on school campuses was different then.

When my students heard about the shooting at Columbine High School, thousands of miles from the small, rural, Oregon high school where we were, they wanted to honor the students who had been killed by planting a rose. If they’d kept up this tradition over the past nineteen years, that campus would be a massive tangle of thorns and flowers.

But that didn’t keep up. Reactions changed.

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Columbine wasn’t the first mass school shooting to happen in my teaching career. Just a year earlier, and much closer to home, Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon saw 24 students shot and two killed by a recently expelled former student, and it certainly has not been the last. Since Columbine the number of tragedies on campuses has grown, and while debating the exact number is as foolish as it is distracting, the truth remains that schools today have a different relationship to gun violence than they did at the end of the last century.

We are better protected, with more thoughtful school designs, key card doors, and more secure campus perimeters; and better prepared, by safety drills of all sorts and dedicated inservices to inform teachers and school staff about what to look for and how to help keep our kids safe, and…

When students today hear about a school shooting, the disbelief their parents might have felt when they were in school has been replaced by something else: the view that this is a just part of their world.

That feels strange.

When word came from Parkland, Florida about the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School the adults in my school and district responded with grief, empathy, and concern. We drafted messages for our school community, prepared our counselors to be ready for students, and were visible and welcoming the following morning. My assistant principal and I visited classrooms, I shared a message of support with my staff, and we as a family of caring educators got ourselves ready to be there when students wanted to talk.

Most didn’t.

Two teachers visited my office, as emotional as I was, and we processed what we’d read about the Florida shooting. We talked about where we were when we heard about Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, and some of the other tragedies that rocked our profession and our world. We remembered our own high school experiences, and wondered aloud the reason our current students seemed less interested in talking about it than students had back when my high schoolers had wanted to plant that rose.

Why is it, we asked ourselves, we adults are so shaken and our students seem to be responding so much more quietly, if at all?

I had a long conversation with our school resource officer, a caring soul who stopped by our campus to see how we were doing. He was quick to point out the importance of being proactive and focusing on how we can prevent these tragedies. I’m hopeful he’ll join me when I address the student body at a pair of assemblies next week.

The responsibilities of an educator in 2018 feel different than they were when I started teaching a quarter century ago. The conversations we need to have with our kids extend beyond the familiar topics that lured us to this profession; they include today matters of life and death, safety and security, and so much more.

I’m still reeling from the horrors reported from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, and steeling myself to talk with students more deeply next week. As a principal I want to do all that I can to keep my students and staff safe, my campus secure, and my school a positive place to learn. It’s work that won’t end in my lifetime, and work so important that I tend to it as I would a rose.



Becoming a Tree

There are some days when it is difficult to believe in the goodness of human nature. Fortunately, the choice to believe is always ours.

More often than not the truly cruel corners of the world aren’t found on school campuses. Like packs of cigarettes left in gloveboxes in the parking lot, most often the unhealthy reality of the world stays sensibly away from classrooms, lunch lines, and pedestrian teenage drama.

When flickers of darkness do show themselves, the demons (mature enough to haunt adults) so raw behind the pained eyes of the people they inhabit have the ability to shake even the most seasoned educator. Not long ago I encountered a person in crisis whose pain reverberated like the peals of a bell.

It’s at these times that the goodwill built over months and years, the friendships forged by time and proximity, and the attitude built by a thousand examples of kindness sustain us. We can look around at the others we work with and know that we are not alone. With a deep inhale of breath, we can recognize that the frightening, wide eyed instability looking at us in the moment will not destroy our optimism, even if it bruises our hope just a little bit.

The reality of darkness, jarring as it is when it walks into a school, is beyond our immediate control. Our choice to acknowledge it and remain steadfast in our optimism is a decision we get to make.

Like parents, or in loco parentis, strength and hope are our obligation and the gift we provide our students.

After a recent day of unsettlement, I found a poem -or better said, a poem by Frances Cornford found me. She wrote of the independence of children, who need freedom to explore…

But when there falls the stalking shade of fear,
You must be suddenly near,
You, the unstable, must become a tree
In whose unending heights of flowering green
Hangs every fruit that grows…”

And so we are, as educators, strong trees with deep roots, with sweet fruit, and with thick bark.

Like trees, we are susceptible to the stray arrow or wildly swung hatchet, and likely we’ll have someone’s initials carved into our side, metaphorically at least. I know that I can look down and see names scraped into the bark of my own memory.

And like trees, we are strong enough to handle it, to show that strength to those around us, and to lose our own instability long enough to see the goodness in the world and be, for someone else, a tree.


Jaw Dropping

Not to sound alarmist…

It’s a balance every site administrator has to strike, answering the question: How can we inform parents about trends in the area of student behavior, drugs, vapes, online perils, without (to put it simply) freaking them out?

Here at Diegueño we know that informed parents are allies in the quest to help students make good decisions and stay safe through the marvelous, perilous, brand new world of adolescence. With that in mind, this year we’ve brought in experts to speak to both students and parents about online safety and substance abuse. We’ve encouraged parents to take their kids to an annual town hall meeting about drinking and driving, and we’re already planning for a series of parent nights for next school year.

Parent Seminar 4-29-15As the principal, I like to be at every event, showing my support for parents, and my availability to be part of the proverbial village here to raise the kids. Sometimes conflicts arise, and I have to miss an event. This happened a couple of weeks ago, when two amazing counselors who run our district’s award winning drug and alcohol prevention program came to speak to our parents in an event we billed as: “Teens and Healthy Choices: The Truth About Vape Pens.”

Well attended, informative, and real, the night was by all accounts a success. I kept a weather eye on what was happening through my AP’s Twitter feed. Midway through the evening I saw a tweet that included a photo of the presenter with a caption that read in part: “parents learning with jaws dropping…”

jawdroppingHonest first thought: “Yikes.”

Truthful second thought: “How many calls will come to me in the morning? How many will go to the district office?”

Then I let myself breathe and ask the more important question: “Is this a good thing?”

And I knew it was.

There’s importance in telling the truth. As our middle schoolers read in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ’em all away from you. That’s never possible.” That’s true for parents talking with their kids, and educators talking with our parents. School is a place that should always keep students safe, and it’s also a place where we need to feel safe talking about even the ugly things in the world.

Sure the result of speaking the truth can sometimes be jaw dropping. Life is. It can also make a real difference.

Empowering parents to have the difficult (and important) conversations with their kids, to keep an eye on social media, and even scroll through the photos on their phones is a valuable part of what we do. Scout and Jem didn’t have SnapChat accounts, but if they did, I like to imagine that Atticus would have handled that beautifully too. I like to think that if he were a parent at Diegueño, we’d help him.

The principal I am believes that we’re in the business of building positive lives for our students. Partnering with parents, we make up a support system for kids that can help them navigate the tough times and be prepare for the future they’re growing into.

The former English teacher I am puts it more simply: when in doubt, listen to Atticus.


A bad day for high fives…

There’s a moment of hesitation, a pause, hand outstretched, nose prematurely wrinkled, as each student reaches for the handle. The fear, I suppose, is inaccuracy on the part of the green and red radial dial that tells the world that the port-a-potty is occupied. So far those dials have done the trick, and we’ve had no problems with either the portable toilets or the hand washing stations, though the latter needed the explanation: “It’s just like at a petting zoo at the fair.”

photo 1 (5)Truth be told, today’s broken water pipe, in the cement below our Cougar Cafe, gave us all an opportunity to show off or collective resiliency and positive attitude.

It struck me, as I was standing guard over a bank of student port-a-potties (something all school site administrators recognize as falling squarely under the heading: “other duties as assigned”) that while we’d had the water off for a while, I hadn’t heard one complaint. Sure I’d seen some folks who wished Teacher Appreciation Week had begun with doughnuts instead of this, but overwhelmingly the attitude modeled by our staff was one of smiles and shrugged shoulders. “We’ll be cool,” one teacher said. She was right.

photo (2)The kids got it too. Sure they were curious about why the water was off, but they took the challenge in stride, and laughed as much as they looked at each other with trepidation before approaching those red and green dials.

In keeping the parents in the loop, we posted information on Twitter and our school Facebook page. As we knew more, we sent an email home to let moms and dads know what questions to ask when their kids got home.

Schools, like life, contain surprises, both good and bad, and it’s not the problems that define us, but our response to them. Today I’m both pleased and proud that the teachers, staff, and students at Diegueño handled what could have been a stressful situation with grace, patience, and a customary smile.

photo 2 (3)They’re cutting into the cement now, and I’m hopeful the water will be back tomorrow, but whether we start the day with port-a-potties or not, I know that our school community will meet the day with optimism and an attitude that all will be well. Diegueño is like that, unhesitatingly ready for the unexpected world ahead.

As soon as we have running water back, I’m giving high fives!


Active Lightning Drill

My friends in law enforcement are some of the best people I know. Their dedication to keeping the peace and protecting us all is profound, and I’ve found them to be folks with a good sense of humor, integrity, and an unexpected optimism about the human condition. Like educators, their work brings them in contact with all segments of society, including those places most of us would rather avoid. I see the local police officers I get to work with as allies, and they’ve earned my trust as I’ve worked with them evaluate our lock down drills and review our safety plan, and in the cases they’re on campus to help a student or family grapple with the choices that a young person has made.

This was my starting position when a conversation with a veteran teacher the other day got me thinking about the way administrators like me approach school safety with our staffs. I’ve been called a little wonky about school safety (a badge I proudly wear, as I did a silver sheriff’s star when I was a kid) and my friend came to me to talk about the way we get information to our teachers about what to do in particular emergency situations.

Now I’m the guy who brought in the local police to provide an “Active Shooter Training” on the first day teachers came back from summer, so when he started asking me questions about how effective I thought that presentation was for our teachers I puffed out my chest a little bit and started talking about how important I thought those preparations are. Yeah, he agreed, but how effective are they?

As educators we strive to help students learn, not just tick a box that we’ve taught a particular bit of information. In classrooms we provide students with opportunities to ask meaningful questions, work hard to help them think critically, and do our best to provide perspective on how the subject matter at hand relates to their lives, and the lives they’ll lead as they become adults. We strive to help students weigh sources for validity and arguments for worth. Had the training that started our year done that?

Four uniformed officers, who had listened to us when we told them that this was the teachers first day back, and that they would still be coming off summer mode, presented information to us on safety measures during an active shooter situation. They’d framed the discussion using a memorable analogy; in an emergency situation, they said, people fall into three categories: sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. The wolves were the “bad guys,” out to hurt the herd; the sheep were our students, who would be panicked in such a situation; and the sheepdogs were police and some of us, there to protect and guide.

The officers stressed the dangers of such a possible situation, referenced the close to home school shooting in Carlsbad still in our collective memory, and played 911 tapes to illustrate the very real panic that occurs when something so horrible happens. They urged teachers to think about how they would respond to that kind of emergency situation, playing the “what if” game in their minds, and discussed options when confronted with an active shooter.

Knowing that the importance of school safety is paramount to all we do, I asked myself: did the presentation give my teachers opportunities to ask meaningful questions? Did it help them think critically? Did it provide perspective?

Honestly confronting the question of how well I’d done at giving my teachers information on this element of school safety gave me pause.

I’d been thorough in my preparation of the school safety plan, but I realized that I’d done less to thoughtfully prepare my presentation of that overall plan than back when I was an English teacher and I prepared a lesson on Nathaniel Hawthorne. My focus had been on getting the important material taught, but I might have done more to help my staff really learn.

Independent of what my teachers thought of the first day presentation (many had liked it, though one had questioned the notion of wolves and sheepdogs as an iffy analogy) as this teacher asked me about its effectiveness, I wondered if I’d done enough to put into practice the paternal feeling I have as a school principal, looking out for the people at my school. I had farmed out some of the work; it was men in uniforms, not me, who told my staff about what to do in a “lock down” situation, should an “active shooter” come on campus. And I’d invited that presentation to be given in relative isolation, not as part of an articulated comprehensive safety plan that would include what to do in the (more likely) case of an earthquake or fire in the chemistry lab, or even a lock down that wasn’t part of an active shooter threat.

In retrospect, I think I’d do better job of encouraging learning if my presentation of this information was an “and” rather than an “or.” It is important to prepare for this most serious (even if remote) possibility, but I shouldn’t isolate the active shooter presentation from the rest of the safety plan.

How powerful it would be to prepare them to lock down, and prepare them to duck and cover, and prepare them to evacuate in case of a fire. To frame the learning in broader terms would not only have given my staff the information they needed, but also the perspective that could help them best with what they would need to do in the case of any emergency.

It’s the comprehensive nature of school safety, and the “Safe and Drug Free School Plan” we develop each year, that makes our preparation so powerful. We have a planned and practiced response for many emergencies, knowing full well that some are less likely than others. As we develop our plans, we’re smart to make sure we help our teachers and students know the difference between them. After all, my friend noticed, students are more likely to get hit by lightning than be involved in an active shooter situation. How much time are we putting into active lightning drills?

That said, the drills we do at a school are profoundly important. As my equally safety minded assistant principal likes to say, we play like we practice, and knowing that we can get the entire student body out of all classrooms and ready to move off campus in three minutes reassures us all. It’s during these and all our drills that teachers model the sense of calm control that is paramount to keeping kids safe. This applies to lock down situations too.

As a fellow who has been in two legitimate lock downs in my career, both called proactively, and neither ending up with any intruder on campus, I know how much they can rattle teachers and students. In those times I felt more comfortable, and was able to show a quiet calm to the students around me, because of the drills my school had conducted. Practicing is important; knowing what to do is vital.

Talking to my safety minded friend, I realized that the things that made me feel most prepared were those things I’d learned from my own site administrators. As educators they were the best teachers, able to filter often anxiety inducing information in such a way as to help teachers know what they had control over (keeping students calm in a safe and orderly classroom) and what they didn’t have control over (needing to know exactly what is happening from a tactical overview vantage point).

As a principal it’s important that I own safety at my school site. That means more than making sure the gates are locked and the safety plan is up to date. It also means that my new teachers have all had opportunities to engage meaningfully with that safety plan. It means that my assistant principal and I are the ones up front providing information to our staff, with both of us working behind the scenes with law enforcement and firefighters to ensure that we have the most up to date information we can have.

I’ve come to believe that the best person to educate educators are fellow educators, and that at my school and with my staff, that includes me.

What, in the end, is the purpose of teaching school safety? The answer is simple: a safe school. To know what to do in any emergency situation, from the more likely to the least likely, is information far more important than anything I could have ever said about The Scarlet Letter. Focusing on what I need my staff to learn is far more important than ticking a box that says they were taught any particular thing.

I want my teachers and students to be ready for everything, and unafraid of anything. I want my school community to be informed, but not alarmed. To get there takes a thoughtful approach, diligent practice, and a dedication to teaching and learning. If we really learn what to do, and how to approach emergency situations, we’ll be able to respond in the way best for all kids …quick as lightning.