The Role Of Education Leaders In Establishing Sound Prevention Practices

We are all invested in the creation of safe and drug-free schools. As parents kiss their children good-bye in the morning, they want to know that their kids will return safely to them that afternoon. All teachers and principals want to enter their school building each day knowing that it will be a full day for education. Every superintendent wants the same thing: a safe institution where students, teachers, and principals can get down to the business of education. But the reality is that a host of inappropriate, disruptive, sometimes violent incidents occur annually. Statistics reveal incidents in which teachers were the victim, guns brought to school and uncounted acts of bullying, teasing, hazing, and physically nonviolent behavior. What is it that drives our children to commit these acts? Truly, all of us know the full breadth of the issues that face our students daily. Indeed, what affects the student outside the school affects that student, the teachers, and administrators inside the school. Here are a few statistics:

– 1 in 2 American children will live in a single-parent family at some point in childhood.

– 3 in 5 preschoolers have their mother in the work force.

– 1 in 1,045 will be killed by a gun before reaching age 20.

Clearly, there is enough going on here to see that, in addition to an academic focus, schools need to be attentive to the social and emotional needs of students. We can work with students to help them meet their academic goals, but if those children are unable to cope with the pressures applied by today’s society, they will not attain academic success. Yet—despite all the media hype to the contrary—schools remain the safest place for our children. But it is also true that the violence that afflicts society has slowly crept into our schools. In recent years, drastic changes in the family structure, along with other societal changes, have led to new challenges. Schools are pressed to find ways to meet the needs of all children. Parents and other constituencies have found their voice and are crying for the achievement gap to be closed. Lawmakers have taken heed and now, more than ever, and states have brought assessment and accountability into focus. The work of our schools has become incredibly complex as different stakeholders compete for priority.

A critical goal of the superintendent is to establish a clear vision and direction for the school district. If the vision is derived from the information presented by the diverse competing constituencies and based on scientifically rigorous evidence, then that collective vision will be one that all stakeholders can share. The guiding question then is: Given the context within which children come to school, what can schools do to help students develop good social skills so they can interact positively? In light of the changing economic and social structure, it is clear that adult nurturing, guidance, and support must come from all facets—the home, the school, and the community—if we are to prevent negative outcomes. Our vision is that a healthy community can collaborate to achieve positive outcomes when guided by the basic principles of academic, social, and emotional learning. And we were successful in attaining partnerships at multiple levels: locally, with the county, and even at the state level. We saw a reduction in discipline referrals and the dropout rate. And we achieved an increase in the number of graduates and the number of those bound for college. Our goal is to share ways in which superintendents can support the creation of safe, supportive, and high-achieving schools.

While the superintendents had different stories to share, their work all began with an individual vision which then blossomed into a collective, community-wide vision. Such core values as academic, social, and emotional learning are an essential part of the big picture. In the end, what is it we hope to achieve? In the short term, we want to ensure that our schools are safe havens in which all students can learn, and this means safe, drug-free, violence-free schools. But we also cannot lose sight that—in the long term, over time—the creation of safe and supportive school communities should be integrated and comprehensive, not merely an add-on. We also want to ensure that we develop lifelong learners who—because they are well-educated, responsible, and respectful—can be active, contributing members in our 21st-century global society. The creation of schools and districts focused on academic, social, and emotional learning.

What is the best approach to show your school board that youth are not just a problem, but that youth can make a difference in people’s lives? There is no more important effort than including young people in this whole conversation. One of the things that we are doing is to create a more democratic environment, especially in our high schools, but at all levels. I think it starts even at the elementary level. For example, many schools are using class meetings as a way to bring out youth voice. The adults in our society often think that young people don’t have something of value to contribute. Look for adults who will bring you forward to the board to talk about the kinds of wonderful things that you have been doing, and to build those alliances and not give up. Keep coming back to the school board with whatever initiatives you would like. And keep coming back to administrators to show that you have something of value to offer. It is key that your voice is not lost in this dialogue. If you want to get the school board’s attention, show up every time and take the three minutes or whatever time allotted for guests to speak. They won’t want to ignore you, especially when they are running for re-election. Make an appointment with each school board member and visit with him or her individually, since they all have office hours. You will have their attention.

The new teachers who came in are very willing to learn. A superintendent or a principal cannot do it alone. There have to be teachers in the school who are aligned with these philosophies. Start a pilot program and collect the data, and the data will be very impressive. Then the board and other teachers and the community cannot doubt what the data shows. There are many places to plant those seeds. You have to have perseverance.

As superintendents and administrators, we are interested, but we work within a political context. And in fact, there are certain things we are capable of doing and certain things we are not. When I was a teacher, I learned from one of my principals a philosophy of “let your fast horses run.” In other words, find the people who are your advocates and let them do the things that they would like to do in terms of social-emotional programming and other areas in which you want to move forward. Many times, we’re surprised about where the seeds come from. We should be open to surprises and look for those people who really care about this, but may not know how to proceed and encourage them to take action.

In this country, one of the biggest things we have done is said that children need to be in school in a safe learning environment. It’s the goal of almost every district in the country. If it’s the goal, then every superintendent should hold the administration accountable for making sure that there is substantial progress towards that goal. The principal also has to hold the staff accountable. I think we need to start forcing the seeds, not just planting them. The guidance counselors are key in creating a positive climate and culture. They can be instrumental in moving the district forward in social-emotional learning. While each district utilizes distinct approaches, the superintendents all share a common vision: to create multiple, system-wide structures of support that simultaneously address the academic, social, and emotional needs of all students.


Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.



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