Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What's Poetry Got To Do With School Safety?


Tod Schneider has been a fierce advocate for advanced CPTED on safe schools for many years. He has published articles and books on safe schools and violence. He is a safe school design inspector, speaker and consultant. Tod is editor of the Safe Cascadia newsletter ( and has graciously submitted this blog entry. He can be reached at

I look at schools for a living, frequently as a security consultant, but I try to go beyond basic 1st Generation CPTED. My broader perspective is usually well received, but not always. Lately I rubbed a Principal the wrong way.

He had been doing a great job revitalizing a troubled school, and by all accounts was succeeding. The school was clean, and behavior and academics were on the upswing. There were security weaknesses, which I identified. But what struck me the most drew on 2nd Generation CPTED notions of community culture and cohesion, or in my terms, SHAPED (safe, healthy and positive environmental design.)

This was not a bad school; it simply left room for improvement. Student-made posters celebrated an upcoming popularity contest, and sports trophies were prominently displayed. High on a wall hung a professionally printed banner with the school “fight” song, and I kept coming back to it, trying to figure out why it was bugging me. The sentence structure had been mangled to serve the rhyme scheme, and the punctuation needed work. To my mind, for an educational facility this should have been embarrassing.

When I mentioned this to the Principal, he barked, “what does poetry have to do with school security?” He explained that the song had been around for a long while, and was meaningful to the alumni. I reassured him that my report would emphasize school security. But had he been more receptive, here’s what I would have pointed out:

* If I came to this school hoping to compete in sports or a popularity contest, this place looked great.

* If I came here hoping to learn essential writing skills, the literary arts, music, math, science or international relations, I might feel uneasy. Those topics did not seem to rate very high in the main public areas of the school.

* If the banner so prominently displayed was there to please the alumni, I would wonder who the school was focused on – the students attending today, or the students who attended fifty years ago when the song was written?

* If I was a socially awkward, non-athletic kid, likely to be pushed to the margins of school culture, I might anticipate being unappreciated or bullied – or invisible. And in the rarest of cases, if I also had serious behavioral or mental problems, I might even be pushed into exactly the kind of antisocial behavior that school nightmares are made of. That’s what poetry has to do with school security.

One example of attention to detail is school displays cases, like the one pictured above. They are often stuffed with athletic tropes, while other accomplishments are rarely recognized. Notice the sign, half-hidden, behind the Coke machine? It's for the National Honor Society.


The banner didn’t need to be hidden – it just didn’t need to be the most prominent display in the entry hall. Students could be invited to write a new song, or at least post examples of other writing that inspires them. Keep the old song around for nostalgia’s sake, but don’t saddle the students with it for the sake of those who are long gone. When schools post signs with misspellings, it suggests that spelling isn’t really all that important. And when the best poetry the administration can come up with is mediocre, what message does that send?

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the school team, and building school spirit. But it’s the kids on the margins that I’m worried about, with different interests, quirks or cultures. The ones who will never win the popularity contest, or lead the team to victory. For these kids, I’d like to see a more balanced display celebrating a full range of interests.

Sports plaques were widely displayed here, especially at all major entry points; other topics were harder to find mention of, although I did go searching. Some bulletin boards outside classrooms did reflect other subjects, I was pleased to see. But the only plaque outside the choral room was for athletes. Down a distant hallway, adjacent to a storage closet, I finally did find a modest display about music.

At least, I thought, it was something.