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?