Safety First! From early childhood on, this powerful admonition is repeated in American homes time and again. It’s a mantra in our schools, too.
To this day, I vividly remember that when I took my first education course — on the way to earning a teaching credential — my UCLA professor was clear as could be: The first priority of California’s public schools is the safety of school children.
That’s right, it holds a higher priority than teaching math, science, reading, the arts…or anything else. When you think about it, there is good reason for making safety (and health) the topmost priority in our public schools. Our society is organized to require school attendance — at a public school or at a suitable alternative. School is not an option — it’s compulsory. This means that when our children attend school, they are put in the custody of others. From the moment little Suzy meets the school crossing guard in the morning until the afternoon when she is delivered back to her parent, Suzy is in the custody of the school and the State of California. In effect, the school and the State take the place of the parents for the entire school day. There is even a legal term for this — it’s in loco parentis, which is Latin for “in the place of a parent.”
This has huge implications. Think of the health and safety concerns we hear about and talk about every day — vaccinations, transportation safety including school buses and cars, gun safety and earthquake safety, and protection against toxic exposure and even bullying. We tend to take for granted that our schools will keep our children safe.
Well, we shouldn’t take safe schools for granted! Without constant vigilance, our schools and our children will be less safe than they should be. And teachers and school staff will be less safe than they should be. Across the country, hundreds of school children and teachers are exposed to gun violence every year. And many thousands of faculty, staff and students are exposed to dangerous toxic contamination — right on the school site and from nearby sources.
We all have a moral responsibility to insist on safe schools, here in Irvine and everywhere. We have legal responsibilities, too. If you don’t think so, consider this: When our schools fail to put safety first — when faculty, staff and students get sick or injured as a result — there can be hundreds of millions of dollars in legal liability that, ultimately, is a further burden on all taxpayers.
In future columns, we can take a closer look at specific health and safety issues in our schools. Sometimes it’s bad news, but often it’s good news. I always welcome your comments and insights.