Paula Mirk

Respect, Compassion, and Fairness in Schools

The current debate about school safety, as tragic as recent events may be, risks derailing the positive direction we need to go in as a nation if we want to uphold the broadest purpose of education: What kind of people are we preparing to lead society into the future? The very sad incident in Newtown was the result of one individual's mental impairment and a variety of factors—including his access to weapons—that happened to come together in a perfect storm at an elementary school. But if our response is to arm our schools, I'm afraid that by that logic we must also arm our cinemas and arm our supermarket parking lots. The list will go on and on. In other words, the Newtown issue is not so much about school shootings as it is about a shooting that took place at a school, like many others that have taken place in many other environments.

In other words, as counterintuitive as this might seem, the gun violence issue, in all its urgency (and I believe it is an urgent national issue), shouldn't cloud the school safety issue (another urgent national issue). Well in advance of keeping students safe from the very rare outside attack of a disturbed individual, we have lots of work to do to make sure our students are safe from the various forms of harassment and bullying they continue to report. We can do this by establishing schoolwide practices that uphold and consistently demonstrate core ethical values such as respect, compassion, and fairness. This doesn't mean slapping lists of words up on the walls of our schools. It means commitment to sustained, intentional scrutiny of how we do things, day in and day out, from the top leadership down to the classroom.

Our Ethical Literacy process is driven by six objectives (PDF) designed to make schools safe. These form and drive the framework for teams in participating schools to establish and carry out a plan of action that engages all constituents—parents, teachers, leadership, staff, and students—in an active education process to build a school culture of integrity:

  1. Knowing values: We want the compass points for integrity to be established and the specific language integrated into the life of the school.
  2. Applying values: We want everybody in the school community—parents, teachers, leadership, staff, and students—to be actively demonstrating the established values in daily behavior.
  3. Decision making: We want all constituents in schools to apply their ethical values first and foremost in decision making. We train teams to provide many opportunities for everyone in schools to learn the difference between right/wrong and right/right, and to hone their values-based critical thinking skills.
  4. Communication: We want everybody in a school community to be fluent in the language of ethics, and in the habit of integrating what's right into explanations and directives.
  5. Moral courage: We want all school constituents to understand the nature of moral courage, and to experiment whenever possible with stepping up for moral principles.
  6. Ongoing exploration: We want ethics and integrity to be a lively, ongoing exploration for everyone in a school community.

These simple outcomes, based on and guided by best-practice research like the Schools of Integrity project, ensure that everyone in our schools will be looking out for each other, upholding what’s right, and learning to be positive contributors to society. In the long run, that's the best guarantee of safe schools and safe communities.

Paula Mirk worked at whole child partner the Institute for Global Ethics (IGE) for 17 years. For the majority of her tenure, she oversaw IGE's education department. IGE collaborates with national and international organizations and with school districts large and small to integrate ethical literacy into classroom practice, school culture, and systemic reform. Connect with IGE at

Comments (2)

Al Neil

March 7, 2013

Spot on Paula. We have a culture of violence in this country and perhaps all over the world. We seem to be focused more on results than how they are achieved. There appears to be far to much manipulation, coercion, and compromise of character in order to get what we want. The “ends-justify-the-means” run amok.
Has our digital age caused a loss of humanity? How can anyone justify killing an innocent human being, especially a child? Have we reduced a person to bits of information on a screen? Does that make it easier to harm them? We need to include, unify, and find our common ground, our common values. There must be a way to end our fragmentation, fear, and hatred of one another. It’s easy to apply compassion, respect, and fairness to our friends, but it takes considerable moral courage to include everyone. To do otherwise is fickle, hypocritical, and we become unreliable, without foundation. Resolve to care, to be fair, to respect no matter what the circumstance, and expect nothing in return. The practice of values, the improvement of character is reward enough.

Charlene Hosokawa

April 1, 2013

Even before “violence”, teachers need to be fair.  I was saddenedd to witness first hand discrimination to one student.  She just wanted to pick up prom pictures, but her former teacher refused to release the pictures without a form of identification.  She knew this student.  Other students could pick up pictures without id. Fairness should be a priori.

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