Red Lake and Emotional Literacy

Nearly two of three Americans say school killings like Monday's at the Red Lake Indian Reservation will take place regardless of actions taken by government or society. In other words, kids who turn bad and violent can't be helped or even stopped.

That undue pessimism toward offtrack youth, however, hasn't stopped public schools from beefing up security since the 1999 Columbine High School killings. But while they've put faith in guards, metal detectors, surveillance cameras, zero- tolerance policies, and other safety steps, they've made scant progress toward a fundamental prevention tool: Turning schools into better communities of caring, support, and belonging.

It would be difficult, of course, to say whether 16-year-old Jeff Weise might not have killed seven people at his rural Minnesota school if the school had somehow helped him from becoming a loner, an object of teasing, and a delinquent sent home to do his studies. His home life had been shattered by his father's suicide and mother's incapacitation.

Still, that school and the many thousands of others should reevaluate how to enhance the experience of acceptance for children and pay attention to their social needs in order to help develop their emotional literacy.

Too many schools in these days of high-stakes testing mainly nurture competition and individualism ahead of collaboration and fostering a school's community. And too many students perceive their schools as uncaring environments where bullies rule and a lack of peer acceptance is considered normal.

While schools are still safer for children than many other public places, fearful reaction to the multiple murders at schools over the past decade has created a tension in classrooms and hallways.

To dispel such fear, many schools teach tolerance and respect for diversity. In 1998, the US Education and Justice Departments sent schools a guideline called "Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools" that advises them on providing kids with positive mentoring and better group socializing. One important tip: Keep schools clean, warm, and repaired to help create a respectful community atmosphere.

The Red Lake massacre should refocus efforts toward helping kids feel included from the start as a way to prevent bullies and biases from turning them into armed, vengeful misfits. Just trying to spot errant children in the classroom or blocking them at the school door when they mean harm may be too late.

Schools must be more than knowledge factories.

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