On School Violence and What We Can Do

The side gate to my childrens' elementary school yard is now locked. This feels unfortunate to me, because this remote entry to the school's sports field is lovely. It shares terrain with a university campus, and the walk to the school gate includes a country road that rises up from an elegant, old entry at the main street, marked by carved white posts from some other era. Majestic trees and wild meadow rise beyond. It's a rural, poetic corner of our city and we are lucky to have it here, by our school. I'll miss this walk, past the old gate, up the road and into school.

This locking happened because some apparently confused individual (adult/male/vagrant) was coming onto campus and stealing childrens' backpacks. One can just barely imagine why. What was this man after, sandwiches? ... Gummy bears? Goldfish crackers? Bits of twigs and leaves, barrettes, journals, baseballs, gloves, notes to BFF's? ... Fifty cents, or two dollars?

Perhaps these spacious, colorful containers seemed to promise so much, with their bright decorations and primary colors, thrown about haphazardly outside of classrooms, bulging out from walls on hooks, carelessly left unzipped by trusting, oblivious children.

The school shooting/massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, of course, sealed the deal on the gate in December. And although nearly all other boundaries of school property--north, east, much of the south--remain wide open to the wind, families, vagrants, domesticated and wild animals, birds and all else, a gate that can be locked, now is.

"The sad truth," he said, "is that someone who really wants to hurt people probably will."

At our most recent PTA meeting, the school principal stated that ideas for further school security were being mulled over--including: possibly enclosing the entire school in fencing. As a concerned mother, I found myself interested.

But our principal also noted that in Newtown, the only entry point to the school was a set of locked double doors (the shooter blasted through these) and the rest of the campus was also secured, locked.

"The sad truth," he said, "is that someone who really wants to hurt people probably will."

We have many Israeli friends, and some are in shock that the entire school is not patrolled by armed guards. Of course, we are not in Israel, and while all ideas for and about our childrens' safety must be considered, it also sadly true that in a heavily armed and defended world, there really is no such thing as true and permanent security--for anyone.

Is there any other way that we can be vigilant? What can be done by ordinary, concerned people, parents and educators in this moment and every moment?

Actually, there is an "invisible" factor that plays into our own protection and that of others.

After the hard, insane, horrific reality that was Newtown, and is nearly all violence in our society, what I will say here may sound like clouds or cotton candy.

But I venture that this invisible factor, this common denominator for all human beings, and their safety and well-being, trumps all others.

It is our own thoughts, our own states of mind. Setting aside, for the moment, the major role that Thought plays in building a case within the mind of a perpetrator of violence (misguided, painful, distorted thoughts); we can, as ordinary people, pay immediate attention to our own states of mind.

When we are consumed by personal thoughts, worried thoughts from the past, or anxious projections into the future, when we are not present, it is nearly impossible to be attuned to our surroundings.

Alert, without unwarranted fear, conscious of where our bodies are in time and space (as well as other bodies), attentive to the energies of those around us--these all comprise an attuned, responsive state of mind that can alert us to real threats in our environment, or to the "off feelings" of an individual.

I worked with men and women, boys and girls, who had committed horrible crimes, some they had been charged with, and some that had not yet been discovered. One boy was accused of killing his own father.

I worked for several years for a county system teaching principles of Mind, Consciousness and Thought. I went regularly, willingly, happily, into environments some may consider dangerous. These included the county jail, juvenile hall (minimum and maximum security units), correctional ranches for adolescents, and schools for adjudicated youth.

I worked with men and women, boys and girls, who had committed horrible and violent crimes, some they had been charged with, and some that had not yet been discovered. One boy was accused of killing his own father. One boy put an innocent bus driver in the hospital. One boy set fire to animals.

In the midst of these populations, two things helped me stay safe: One was a deep respect for the core resilience and health of each individual, no matter the charge, a basic respect that was felt from me and therefore returned to me. Two, simply staying in a state of presence, clearing thought, not projecting fear (not creating fearful thoughts), and also not being afraid to acknowledge when an inmate (or even correctional officer!) was acting in an inappropriate way, or putting out a strange energy.

Inmates felt safe and confided in me, even when the secrets they shared were twisted or offensive, or when they shared deeper fears that might be embarrassing.

Attention to my own thoughts and state of mind did two things. Inmates felt safe and confided in me, even when the secrets they shared were twisted or offensive, or when they were sharing deeper fears that might be embarassing. I was able to observe situations that "needed to handled" and handle them, without fearing consequences to myself. I reported a correctional officer or "counselor" at juvenile hall who was acting inappropriately in my class. I reported an adult male who was dating an underage teenager at a school where I worked. Once (outside of work) I saw a man acting strangely, lingering outside my childrens' gymnastics class, and I reported this to staff at the parks and recreation department.

I am not holding myself up as some kind of saint or hero. I have many colleagues who have taken similar responsibility, and acted more bravely than me. Many of you, dear readers, have probably stepped up to the plate many times. And I make mistakes. I still can get caught up in thinking and cloud my own mind. I am not perfect, but I gain clarity day by day, month by month and year by year.

My point here is that each one of us has the potential to discriminate between thoughts (or states of mind) that are helpful to ourselves and others, that can be protective and guide us, and thoughts that simply clutter the mind and render us ineffective and "absent." Even thoughts that might cause us to harm others.

With mental clarity, we emanate a neutrality and compassion that those around us feel and respond to. Perhaps a bullied child can confide in us. Perhaps even a bullying child can.

With mental clarity (a quiet mind) it is more obvious when something needs to be addressed, and we can move past fears and doubts about speaking up. With mental clarity, we emanate a neutrality and compassion that those around us feel and respond to. Perhaps a bullied child can confide in us. Perhaps even a bullying child can. Certainly more so when we are not caught up in our own mental storms, judgments, moods and urgency to move into the next moment.

Finally, we must open our collective mind to greater hope and possiblity for people who suffer from mental illness--hope that goes beyond destigmatization. With the relatively recent introduction of the power of Thought into Western "mental health," the field of possibilities has opened. In my work, I personally know, have followed, and communicated with so many people who suffered tremendously with even severe diagnoses, and have found peace of mind, gentleness and freedom for themselves.

... the value of mental clarity and peace of mind, and the possibility for a deeper and deeper sense of presence has, in the 20th century, become a vibrant, profound and far reaching dialogue.

My own non-profit specializes in teaching the role of thought and state of mind to families, schools and communities. We teach the fundamental innocence, mental health and neutrality that exists within all of us, and that we can reach out to and help "grow" in others.

Globally, however, the role of Thought, the value of mental clarity and peace of mind, and the possibility for an ever deepening sense of presence has, in the 21st Century, become a vibrant, profound and far reaching dialogue that I have heard coming from all corners. I believe this dialogue, and what it reveals, will go a long way further toward protecting ourselves and our children; toward loving ourselves and each other; and therefore toward ending school violence, and every kind of violence, than locking the gates.

Resources: