Dr. Gary Margolis, founder/CEO of Social Sentinel and former University of Vermont Chief of Police, explains how meaningful student connections lead to safer, more productive learning communities.
What advice did you receive early in your career that still applies today?
I remember returning to the police department after four months of police academy training and, like most cops, I pictured myself in a crime fighter cape saving the world in a shiny new cruiser (and with a cool theme song in the background). I was ready, or so I thought. My mentor pulled me aside and told me something I didn’t expect to hear.
“Gary,” he said, “the secret to success as a police officer is getting out of the car and talking to people. Listen to the community.” Those words abruptly stopped the movie in my head, and I probably couldn’t hide my profound disappointment. No cape? No theme song? He added, “You can’t keep a community safe if you don’t know its people. You have to understand who they are, the challenges they face, and what they need from us.”
Over a 20-year career in law enforcement, I learned how right he was, and I’ve shared his wisdom more times than I can recount. Keeping people safe starts with human connection. It’s what’s needed on our nation’s streets and in our classrooms.
There are frequent debates in the media about school violence. Are the discussions focused on the right issues?
Following every tragic shooting, we witness the usual finger pointing and arguments that now define the intractable gun debate in our country. That’s followed by another shouting match about mental health, assault weapons, the Second Amendment, and so on.
While these discussions spark engagement and awareness, they typically quiet down after a few weeks or months. Both sides of the numerous debate eventually retreat to their corners. No tangible results are achieved. I’m hoping for something different these days. What’s missing from the discussion is an approach to school safety that might just be right under our noses.
What is the missing approach?
It’s the critical element of human connection. Knowing our students as people; where they come from; how they learn, their experiences, their perspectives, and their feelings all form a magical bond. A bond that is nurtured in a safe environment.
Can the issue of school violence be solved?
I think it largely can, and I think it’s about the human connection.
Sir Robert Peele, the father of modern policing, said that the measure of police success is counted in the absence of crime and disorder. Our nation’s schools remain the safest place for our children and students, and it’s in large part due to the human connection each day and in every classroom.
Every student needs to know someone is there for them; someone is paying attention. Without this gift of connection, and without knowing our students, how can we keep them safe while they learn?
How does social media factor into the issue?
I see great benefit in social media. I’ve made new friends with shared interests all over the world. Thanks to social media, we share each aspect of our personal lives with the world–and some of us are doing it almost constantly. A generation ago, if not less, communication was still in-person-centric. Teachers and students we primarily interacted with each other in the classroom, on the playing field, during music practice, and through extracurricular activities. Today, the conversation now continues digitally long after the classroom lights are turned off, band practice ends, and the game is over. The conversation continues long after our mentors, teachers, and coaches leave us.
We check our social media accounts on average of five to six times per hour and post two to three times in that same span of time. Recent research reveals teens spend up to nine hours a day on multiple social media platforms; posting up to five times per hour. We’re not just sharing the good stuff. While social media is an easy way to post pictures of our pets, vacations, loved ones, and favorite activities, it’s also a means to taunt and bully, a place to cry for help, incite violence, intimate and encourage self-harm and other violent acts.
Other studies explain how social media can worsen feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression. It can embolden students to threaten to harm themselves or others. Their cries for help, expressions of intense anger, and signals of possible danger get posted online—sometimes publicly—every day. They are missed if we’re not paying attention or not fully connecting. And if we’re not connecting, we’re not protecting. To meet them where they are, we have to be there, too.
How do you stay positive and resilient in the face of heavy social media content around tragedies?
As a police officer and then a university police chief, it was easy to become jaded. At the university, we interacted with our most challenging students—those frequently in trouble with the worst behaviors—while the vast majority led to positive, productive lives at the university. I came to appreciate that the students with fewer disciplinary issues were generally involved and connected through sports, and student and university groups. They had relationships with their professors, advisors, coaches, and each other. Their connections led to achievements in and out of the classroom. Without it, as I saw first-hand, problems developed.
I’ve since retired from police work. Now I’m a parent with another perspective on how real connections with young people, especially during the challenges of adolescence, are vital to their success. We can see the pain for one before it becomes another tragedy for all. The positive outcomes of human connections keep me hopeful and focused on how we at Social Sentinel can help.
If you could say something to everyone, what would it be?
I’ve been responsible for the protection of children and young adults for decades, and the school violence we witness affects me deeply. I’m grieving. I’m angry. I’m tired of the business-as-usual arguments. I’m convinced now more than ever that we can stop it and it starts with what we already know. The violence is a symptom for a larger issue. Listening and human connections. That’s the big secret.
My message is simple: education and safety require community. Our students, at every level, must know they’re being heard and being listened to. When our youth have an adult at school; in the playground; at the community center; or at the church, mosque or synagogue who is listening and cares, they (and all of us) are safer.