Creating safe school environments


By: Suzanne Elston


When we talk about creating a safe environment for our children, the things that immediately come to mind are clean air, safe drinking water, and chemical-free places to grow, learn and play. But as the terrible shootings at Dawson College, Platte Canyon High School and the Amish schoolhouse so tragically demonstrated earlier this fall, we must learn to re-define what it means to create a truly safe environment for our children. These recent tragedies were also terrible reminders of other school shootings: the Columbine High School massacre of April 20, 1999, that left 15 dead and 24 wounded, and the fatal school shooting of a student in Taber, Alberta, only days later.


In every case unsuspecting students had gone to school on those fateful days assuming that they would be safe. Their parents had all made the same assumption. The true terror of each of those events was that they are painful reminders that no matter how hard we try, our children are vulnerable.


From the initial shock of the events came disbelief, grief and rage. We memorialized the victims and we analyzed the perpetrators with an effort to understand why they did such terrible things. As time has passed and the evidence has mounted, perhaps the hardest part of these tragedies is acknowledging that each of the perpetrators was also once a victim. Like their victims, each had a family, friends and loved ones who mourn their loss and also wonder why.


“We are devastated by the final act of violence,” wrote parenting expert and author Barbara Coloroso, “but are rarely outraged by the events that led to the final act.” She cautions that in every case, the perpetrators involved had both what she describes as, “a disposition and a situation.” In other words, an individual’s inherent tendencies (nature) can be shaped, positively or negatively, by his or her environment (nurture).


“In the wake of tragedies like these school shootings, the first thing that we have to do is be willing and open not to demonize the perpetrators,” said Coloroso. “If we allow ourselves to demonize them, it removes us from having to take any responsibility for what happened.” Coloroso uses Eric and Dylan, the two students that killed at Columbine High School as an example. She points out they had been targeted and bullied as younger students. The mother of the Taber shooter said he too had endured incessant bullying and was depressed before the shooting. Fellow students described him as someone who was unpopular and the frequent subject of name-calling and teasing.


“This doesn’t justify what they did, but it helps explain some of their rage,” Coloroso said. “We’ve got to get back to taking a critical look at creating an environment that is conducive to kids caring about each other.”


“I feel sorry for the poor kids who perpetrate these horrible crimes,” said school trustee Cathy Abraham. “How awful to get to a place in your life where this is the best you can do. What must it be like to be inside these children’s heads?”


In order to protect all of our children, we must learn to be diligent. We need to watch for early warning signs that indicate a child is feeling bullied or isolated. These include:


Coloroso says that the antidote to isolation is to teach our children to care deeply, share generously, and help willingly. We also need to teach our kids the difference between “tattling” and “telling”. If a child is being bullied, he or she needs to be reassured that it’s important to talk about it with a caring adult.


“Keep an open dialogue, pay attention, get involved, and never, ever look away,” advises Coloroso. That’s a tall order, but one that must be accomplished if we have any hope of breaking the escalating cycle of violence and preventing today’s isolated and troubled child from becoming tomorrow’s murderer.




Coloroso’s website, has excellent downloadable resources for parents and teachers, including her essay, “The Bully, The Bullied, and The Bystander: Breaking the Cycle of Violence.”