When I got up this morning it was such a beautiful day that I almost decided to skip the Youth Safety Summit sponsored by the Metropolitan Nashville Board of Education and instead work in the yard. March was so dreary and cold and wet that today seemed like spring burst forth all at once. I wanted to plant some seeds and play in the dirt. Instead, I am glad that I went. Unfortunately, most people who otherwise would have attended must have decided to stay home and enjoy the spring day.
In light of the tragedy of Newtown, I thought that a summit on school safety would be packed. I do not have school age children myself so I was interested simply as a concerned citizen but I thought that there were enough school teachers and guidance counselors and parents of school age children more vested in this issue than I, that this conference would be packed. Unfortunately, the auditorium at MaGavock High School, which can probably seat 2000, was mostly empty with barely a hundred people in attendance.
I was not sure what to expect. What I experienced was an emotional and inspirational and thought-provoking program that offered a message of hope. The general session was a presentation by Darrell Scott on a program called "Rachel's Challenge." Rachel Joy Scott was a charming young girl who was a high school senior and the first person killed during the Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999. Darrell Scott is her brother. "Rachel's Challenge" is program started by her parents in her memory to impact the lives of school children in the hope that future tragedies such as Columbine can be prevented. The program provided a recap of event on that tragic day and profiled both Rachel Scott and her murderers.
Despite the overwhelmingly depressing topic, occasional humor and levity lightened the mood. The theme of the program is that we need moral education and a focus on character development. Darrell Scott made the point that for two hundred years America led the world in education and now we are rapidly sinking, but for two hundred years we did not focus on academic achievement alone but focused on developing character. There used to be an emphasis on "heart, head and hand," he said. There was a realization that developing the whole child was important and that developing character was an important part of education. He said that we need to teach people to speak with kindness and teach kids that words can heal or hurt. We need to cultivate a culture of compassion and kindness and caring.
The message of this meeting parallels some other things I have been thinking about. I am reading a great book called, "Quest for Community" written by John Nesbitt. This book was written in the 50's which may seem like an idyllic time now, but Nesbitt saw the seeds of what was to come. As economic growth and raw individualism combines with centralization of power and bureaucratization of societal functions we experience a demise of those institutions that keep us grounded and we see an anatomization of the society. The autonomous individual loses a sense of accountability and expectation of norms of behavior and there is a price to pay for this. The glue that holds us together is no longer there.
After the meeting I engaged in conversation with a teacher for maybe an hour. He shared his insight of twenty-five years of teaching and the changes he has seen in children over that time. He told me some things I already knew but with his personal experience and insight he made it more real. With many children raised by single moms or two working parents and with a decline in church attendance and the absence of the extended families and with advances in technology that mean children may spend hours in their own world on the internet or playing video games, many children never have any moral education. They do not eat meals with their parents and they do not even experience the same TV programs. Family no longer fills the roll that it once did. And, with diversity and secularization that does not allow mention of God in school there is a lack of moral education. Many children never learn basic manners and may never think about issues of right and wrong.
I don't know what the answer to school violence is but I think the problem of school violence is a symptom of a bigger problem. We must find a way to strengthen family and community and church and those institutions that make us a part of something bigger than ourselves. We must find a way to instill a sense of morality and accountability in people. For a Democracy to function, people must be self-governed; they must have a sense of right and wrong. There must be a moral compass. Values must be instilled and passed down. Maybe, programs like Rachel's Challenge can be part of the answer.
For more on Rachel's Challenge, see this link and this link.