Newtown Superintendent Puts Student Resiliency Atop Her List

by Brianna Sacks

Janet Robinson

Janet Robinson
Photo by Brianna Sacks

Newtown, Conn. Superintendent Janet Robinson has been thinking about resiliency regularly in the wake of the elementary school tragedy that shattered her small, seven-school district’s sense of security and normalcy in mid-December.

In an interview with Conference Daily Online on the final day of the AASA national conference in Los Angeles, Robinson folded her hands and took a calm, measured breath before discussing what needs to be done to protect students and what kind of conversation the country needs to have as it continues to digest the horrific event that took place just over three months ago.

Robinson gave testimony before a Democratic Party congressional panel last month to push for a ban on assault weapons. Since then, politicians, parents and schools have tossed around different methods to prevent violence and the two main topics, gun control and mental health, have been dissected from a variety of angles.

But to Robinson, the most important things we can do are to keep a more vigilant eye on student behavior and teach students coping skills that help them “roll with” all life will throw at them.

She spoke of routine, empathy, sensitivity and, most importantly, the joy of being in a classroom.

These are the things the nation must think about in any discussion of school security. Not only do we need to preserve these qualities, she said, we should amplify them to give young students the experience they should be having when they walk onto campus every morning.

“We are thinking about what adults want and in that discussion we are forgetting about the kids and their needs for routine and a caring environment,” said Robinson. “It has become all about our fears and how do we protect students and because of that we run the risk of taking away some of the joys of being a child.”

Armed guards, police officers, metal detectors and cameras may secure a school’s walls and doorways, but it will take an influx of counselors, therapeutic programs and curriculum to prevent further acts of violence in schools, said the veteran superintendent, who was honored at the conference’s 1st General Session on Thursday.

School safety should be mostly about protecting a child’s emotional well-being. The question is, however, how exactly we go about doing that in a time shaped by so much fear and distrust.

“I think we need to look at this more systemically and say that this is a value we have as a country,” said Robinson, “so that we can have more programs and opportunities nationwide that include sensitivity and empathy to help timid students speak out.”

After working so closely with educational leaders and politicians in Washington, Robinson said she was grateful to those politicians who listened openly and wanted to learn more about what actually goes on in public schools.

“They didn’t totally understand what goes on in schools,” she said. “And some of the decisions they were making, in terms of accountability, were based on a business model and not really understanding what it’s like for kids.”

Before the Newtown tragedy, Robinson said she considered an offer to leave her position as the schools superintendent, but decided to remain to give the town “consistent leadership” at such an unsettling time. And though she did not disclose specifics, she said she will be “entertaining other opportunities.”

“It’s not because I want to leave Newtown, but because there are other challenges I can take on,” she said.

The shooting in Newtown has spurred many deep, heated debates on what is best for our schools. And Robinson said she has learned a great deal from that tragedy, especially the strength it takes to continue functioning day-to-day.

This is what she wants to teach students. How to cope, communicate, and remain resilient in the face of something so difficult to comprehend.

(Brianna Sacks, a graduate student at University of Southern California, is an intern with AASA’s Conference Daily Online.)

Audio Clips: 

  • Exclusive interview with Newtown, Conn. superintendent Janet Robinson about school safety and what it means for a student to feel safe and secure in a school setting. Robinson-school-safety.wav [2:04]
  • Newtown, Conn. Superintendent Janet Robinson discusses the importance of an open, collaborative school culture in a school district, especially in a time of tragedy and high stress. Robinson-school-culture.wav [1:05]

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