Challenges, opportunities in times of change

Susan Castillo

This is an excerpt from a speech made by Oregon's Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Castillo July 13 to Violence Prevention Summer Institute.

The theme of this year's conference is: "Challenges and Opportunities in Times of Change." This theme is fitting not only to the topic of school safety and violence prevention, but also to our collective goal of ensuring all students are equipped with the knowledge and skills to achieve their dreams.

You know, the topic of violence prevention is relatively new in the education community. And really, the fact that we are adopting school safety policies and strategies to prevent acts of violence in our schools and among our youth is in response to the changing needs of our students and how best to prepare them for participation in our society.

Over the last 10 years, as a nation we have endured the tragedies of youth violence in Columbine and close to home - Springfield. Hate violence in the murder of Matthew Shepard, and of course a day none of us will ever forget - 9/11.

The change since 10, 20 and 30 years ago in our exposure to violence on a daily basis is extreme. At the movies - in television - we witness shootings, bombings, physical beatings and brutalities. On the news - we see the evidence of torture. We are exposed to racial, ethnic and gender stereotypes depicted in entertainment from magazines to the cinema to the Internet to the arcade.

Just think back to the 1980s, when video games were like "Pong" - where two players volleyed a white dot back and forth. Today, video games are more like "Grand Theft Auto" - where players steal cars, beat up the local community members for money or weapons, and solicit prostitutes.

We are not as exposed to this form of violent entertainment, but our children are. They are exposed to the behaviors that fuel violence every day. They see what we see and even what we don't. And too often that behavior in fiction can translate into behavior in real life down the road.

We know that most incarcerated adults displayed aggressive and violent behavior through bullying or harassment as youth - only no one pulled him or her aside and let them know their actions were not OK.

No one asked what was wrong or why they did what they did or said what they said. No one helped them learn a different way to communicate frustration, hurt feelings, embarrassment, or anger. No one helped put him or her on a different path in life.

But we know now that paying attention now to our children's actions when they are young is a leadership role we can fill and that we have a responsibility to fill. We know now intervening when teasing or bullying occurs is key to preventing this kind of behavior from escalating later on in their lives.

Stepping in now when intimidation is used on the playground, in the hallways, in the lunchroom, or in the classroom is critical for preventing violent acts in the future.

We also know that school safety isn't only about ensuring our students are not at risk of being harmed physically. It is also about ensuring our students are not at risk of being harmed emotionally so they are free to learn and achieve at the levels we know they are all capable of.

We have an achievement gap - not because white and upper-income students have the ability to learn better than minority and low-income students - but because the times have changed and we haven't been equipped to meet the needs of all students at the same rate their needs have diversified.

I know that you agree that we have a moral obligation and responsibility to close this achievement gap. And part of this responsibility requires us to change how we foster the kind of learning environment where all kids enter our classrooms ready to learn no matter their native language, race, ethnicity or unique learning needs.

We must ensure our schools are places any and all kids are met with encouragement - not discouragement - and where any and all kids can participate in the school community without fear or intimidation. Where cultural awareness and inclusiveness drives the learning. Where differences are celebrated and civil rights honored. Where kids come to school ready to engage in their learning without the distractions of an unsafe or insecure environment. Schools must be a place where every student is respected.

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