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Safety Crucial in School Reform

Unfortunately no mention of the need for secure learning environments was made May 19 when Gov. Susana Martinez announced a New Mexico Effective Teaching Task Force last week “to provide the best possible education for New Mexico children.”

If the policymakers fail to connect academic success and the school safety issue, any other reform is doomed.

Parents know that where there is real safety in a secure learning environment, the better are the opportunities for their children to enjoy successful learning, personal growth and advancement. When classroom instruction is interrupted by misbehaving students, the teacher’s and the students’ time, focus and energy are diverted.

This danger exists no matter the educational program, grade level or community demographics.

Parents’ desire for their children to be safe and secure at school affects what schools they send their children to, and it impacts family and business location decisions, too. Ask any of the many Española Valley parents who send their children out of district. Rio Rancho and Los Lunas continue to grow in part because parents believe the schools there are safer than others nearby. Any Realtor or corporate location decision-maker will confirm the huge role played by perceptions of school safety and quality.

The link between “reform” and school security efforts is highlighted by recent events in one New Mexico community, Española.

Jailed for three days was Española-NEA president and high school science teacher John Reese after an incident with a student. A lawsuit initiated by local parents and now supported by the ACLU is in motion. Meanwhile controversy swirls around contracts for a privately owned and politically connected security company whose price tag goes up and up as security issues dog the district.

President Obama convened a national summit on the issue in March, in order “to dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up. It’s not. Bullying can have destructive consequences for our young people. And it’s not something we have to accept.”

When troublemakers believe they can get away with anything, the academic success and emotional well-being of well-behaving students take a hit.

Student-on-student disciplinary incidents in the classroom create frequent discipline problems in New Mexico schools, where teachers are required to impose discipline. Administrators then receive referrals of students who do not respond to classroom discipline.

Too often students are sent back to class without significant action by the administrator. What happens when students go back to the class feeling, or even being boastful, that they just one-upped the teacher?

A teacher can be successful in the classroom when students know with certainty that if they break the rules there will be consequences. No classroom is a behavioral island: The norms must exist throughout the school.

Unsafe schools are also a leading cause of teacher burnout. The National Center for Education Statistics reports “the five most commonly reported sources of dissatisfaction among teachers who left the profession were a lack of planning time (60 percent), too heavy a workload (51 percent), too many students in a classroom (50 percent), too low a salary (48 percent), and problematic student behavior (44 percent).”

When administrators and parents create the right climate by supporting education employees on the front line of discipline, this secures the real sense of safety needed for academic and personal excellence.

In successful schools, all adults have a part in providing safe havens for academic achievement and positive personal growth. Any statewide education “reform” effort needs to address security and safety head-on because this directly impacts all other factors affecting both student and employee performance.

Charles Goodmacher’s opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not represent those of NEA-New Mexico.