An earlier version of this essay appeared in educational Horizons 83,1 (Fall 2004) pp. 11 - 16

Safe Schools: weighing the options

by Wade A. Carpenter, Ph. D. and Daniel Carpenter

edited 2/13/18

The Romans make a desert, and call it peace.
—Tacitus, Agricola, XXX

Hold up, wait a minute, put a little pimpin’ in it.
—Money Mike, Friday After Next

There is little in this issue’s feature articles that we actually disagree with. After all, who can be against school safety? Not us. Who can oppose the broader understanding of safety discussed by several of the authors: safety from bullying, humiliation, ridicule, and teacher abuse? Certainly not us. But we are concerned that some of the authors take things a little too seriously, a little too absolutely, and a little too simplistically.

In a couple of places, simple rhetorical flourishes and slips of the authors’ pens raise our eyebrows. We don’t intend to cheap-shot the authors: we challenge the slip or the flourish, not their real points. In a couple of other places, we think a little extra analysis from an educator with thirty years’ experience teaching in schools and a student with ten years’ experience learning in them may provide extra(educational HORIZONS 83,1) perspective.

Risk and Reward

First, in the otherwise fine article “Safety from the Inside Out,” Alfie Kohn slips when he mentions feeling “safe to take [intellectual] risks.” Obviously, it was just a slip, but all the same, educators have been known to get carried away with basically good ideas (we’ll give a few examples below, none of which occurred in the authors’ current schools). Thus, we want to make an important distinction: if it’s safe, it isn’t a risk . . . and therefore it’s probably not worth doing. In another article, “Safety and Excellence,” John Merrow quotes a similar overstatement by Lisa Delpit: “People cannot learn under stress.” That, of course, is simply not so, as the U.S. Marine Corps proves every twelve weeks. The old Intro to Psych distinction between eustress and distress is important.


There should be physical safety, certainly, in every classroom. If “Sally often sat under her desk when things got out of control,” as Betsy Gunzelmann relates in “Hidden Dangers within Our Schools,” somebody has got to go. Likewise, the kind of bullying and embarrassment employed in preparing adults for war has no place in schools preparing children for citizenship. But “stress-free and safe” can also mean “boring and worthless.” So we propose the following criteria for distinguishing desirable from undesirable risks in schools: we think schoolteachers and administrators can approve

1) intelligent risks for which there is a

2) reasonable likelihood of success from an application of

3) realistic effort, and in which there is an

4) acceptable loss if failure does happen, and a

5) charitable opportunity to recover, and a

6) worthy reward when they do succeed.

The reward may be intrinsic or extrinsic, depending on a number of considerations. For instance, the intrinsic satisfaction we get from succeeding the first time we try something is fine, but if we have failed on the first attempt or two, we wouldn’t mind a little extrinsic glory.

All the same, Kohn’s criticisms of zero tolerance policies are generally well-taken. If the environment in some schools is so bad that zero tolerance is necessary, we suggest that the central office should consider strenuous action, up to and including closing it entirely. Just as Erasmus of Rotterdam suggested that a child who really requires corporal punishment probably doesn’t belong in school, we suggest that a school which really needs zero tolerance probably shouldn’t have children.1 Usually, though, zero tolerance is just a way for the school administrators to say,“We’re scared of these kids. We don’t know how to control them, so we’ll just shirk our responsibility to apply adult judgment, and let the letter of the law cover up for our incompetence.”

And as Kohn points out, metal detectors alone will not keep the school safe. People can find ways around them. Not long ago MTV aired a show in which a camera crew followed one of the students through a normal day. As the students entered the school in the morning, the metal detector occasionally went off. The featured student looked into the camera and said,“See, it goes off and there isn’t even anyone here, so we just walk right on through.” Obviously, somebody at that school just isn’t very bright. (Likewise,as the comedian Chris Rock wisely said,“Don’t go to a party with metal detectors. Sure it feels safe inside, but what about all those [people] outside with guns? They know you ain’t got one.”) A school with metal detectors should make sure that they are operating correctly and are continually staffed, both to prevent weapon smuggling and to prevent attacks on defenseless students.

Judgment and Mercy

In “Safety and Excellence,” John Merrow might be too uncompromising with his apparent endorsement of zero tolerance for certain student conversations. As with physical safety, there are no workable safeguards for absolute “emotional safety.” Suspending a kid because of a joke can be just as silly as suspending a kid for waving a cocktail sword around. For example, some time ago Daniel and one of his friends, both of whom are racial minorities, were exchanging a popular black comedian’s lines about stereotyping. None of what they were saying was directed toward anyone, nor were they in any way disruptive, but it included a politically incorrect term. A teacher overheard it, and she “went off” on them.

It could have been worse. According to the “always intervene” policy that Merrow and Deborah Meier seem to suggest when they discuss emotional safety, Daniel and his buddy could have been suspended. We think Merrow and Meier’s more liberal attitude toward intellectual safety is closer to the mark. Here Lisa Delpit’s comments in the John Merrow article are right when she advocates helping a student express and work through anger. Overzealous attempts to make a school emotionally safe may prove just as excessive as zero tolerance policies for physical violence. Adult judgment is required if adults are going to help children become adults.

Likewise, schoolteachers who try to make their students more accepting of other people, as urged by Ted Sizer in Merrow’s article, might occasionally find their efforts counterproductive. We are not saying that it’s a bad idea to help students get over their differences. What we are saying is that it’s futile for schools to try to keep cliques from forming, and thoughtless attempts at “positive socialization” probably won’t work. Making kids who don’t like each other try to get along can make them dislike each other even more. If the teacher does not know the whole story behind why certain kids or groups don’t get along, enforced association may be unwise.

Gunzelmann, Merrow, and others sensibly urge caution with kids who get emotional. But as they also suggest, an emotional response to an undesirable situation does not automatically mean that a kid is a threat. Some time ago one of Daniel’s classmates commented to the whole class about a grade Daniel had received. It was by no means the first time he had cracked on Daniel, and Daniel replied with an off-color remark that the teacher overheard. Soon she and Daniel were engaged in a yelling match, which resulted in a chat with the assistant dean of students. Happily, that gentleman, who knew both Daniel and his persecutor(s), took effective action instead of relying on a rule-book copout.

Of course Daniel was wrong when he used that language. But the administrator wisely saw him as a normal kid rather than as a threat. A zero tolerance policy could have left him in a lot more trouble, just as a psychologically correct teacher might have watch-listed him as an “angry child,” or worse. The elder Carpenter witnessed an extreme example a few years ago when a perfectly decent kid took a dare on the school bus and “mooned” a following car—which unfortunately turned out to be an unmarked police car. Instead of getting a sensible slap on the wrist (or wherever), the kid was convicted of “indecent exposure.” What was actually just an idiotic prank thus left a teenager with a criminal record that branded him as a pervert.

All that being said, we agree with Merrow that the teachers probably should have been more interventionist at Columbine High School. The point is, neither recklessly conservative zero tolerance nor puritanically liberal do-gooding is ever satisfactory. Awareness, intelligence, and mature discernment are also required.

Righteousness and Truth

Awareness, intelligence, and mature discernment, however, may not be entirely congruent with the current rage for accountability. Yes, it’s getting bad everywhere, and we endorse Gunzelmann’s skepticism toward test-driven schooling. Although throughout this article we encourage nuance, on one issue we would like to state an absolute: if Alfie Kohn is correct that some administrators adopt zero tolerance not for safety, but to raise their standardized test scores by getting rid of “bad kids,” that is just contemptible. There are many good reasons for getting a child out of a school, but that is not one of them.

We know of an eighth-grader who was nearly expelled for “Christmas-treeing” a high-stakes Scantron. The principal lost his cool, getting in the kid’s face and saying,“I oughta knock you out.” (Note:This was subsequently acknowledged to me personally by the embarrassed principal—W.C.) Even if the student was wrong to blow off the test, the overreaction by the principal certainly did no one much good. The student didn’t care that he was getting most of the answers wrong. It didn’t affect his GPA, and he saw it as a waste of his time. Only the intervention of two highly verbal parents prevented an expulsion (which, of course, further worsens the injustice of the whole affair.)

We have been told that the student still doesn’t regret what he did, the whole episode just aggravated his hatred toward the school, and the parents are still trying to pick up the pieces. We understand that even a fine administrator can have a bad moment, but such an episode really does indicate some mistaken priorities.

We also understand children can be misplaced, and moving them may sometimes be a kindness to the kid. We are delighted that the relocated children Gunzelmann describes got the help they needed. Choice and alternative placements may be good, although they are hardly likely to be panaceas. But anyone who would get rid of a kid simply to raise a school’s test scores has no business working with children, period.


1. De Pueris Statim Ac Liberaliter Instituendis Libellus, 25.

Wade A. Carpenter is an associate professor of education at Berry College, Mount Berry, Georgia. Daniel Carpenter is a tenth-grader at Rome High School, Rome, Georgia.