Last week, in response to the school shootings in Littleton, Colo., the U.S. and California flags flew at half-staff in the quad at Malibu High School. But the hand-lettered sign hanging from a nearby, second-floor walkway told far more poignantly how deeply the tragedy in Colorado touched the hearts of the school’s 1100 students. It read simply and eloquently: “We’ll never forget you, kids of Columbine High.”
Although MHS has an exemplary safety record, the tragedy also galvanized Michael Matthews, Malibu High’s principal since 1993, into immediate action. The day after the shooting, the 37-year-old principal spoke to the entire student body about the issues involved.
On Friday, he sent a letter to every school parent outlining the school’s response.
Later that day, Matthews spoke with The Malibu Times.
DW: What was your first reaction to the news?
MM: The realization that it could very easily have been us; we’re the same kind of school and have, basically, the same kind of population.
My first question to myself was, ‘How do I make students feel safe here?’ I knew they’d feel unsettled and would need to be consoled and reassured that this was an OK place to be. My second question to myself was, ‘How do we make it a safer place to be? What can we do as a school to be more protective of our students?’ So, on Wednesday when they came into school, I got on the intercom for 10 minutes, talked about the flag being at half-mast, about what scares me and what I feel good about here at Malibu High School.
DW: What did you say to them?
MM: I reminded them that we have worked a lot on the issues of race and respect. They are part of the curriculum and our advisory program. Then, I addressed two issues. First I explained that violence comes from hatred and urged the kids to remember those lessons, and also to remember that the little insults they give each other add up. I love teen-agers, but it’s the meanest age of all; high schools can be pretty scary places to be. Second, I discussed our continuing efforts to keep Malibu High School a safe campus, a record of which I am very proud. I reminded the students of our weapons policy and that we all, teachers and staff, are here to help, but that we also need the students’ help if they are worried about something. In my letter to the parents, I asked that they also reinforce this at home.
DW: Is there any way to spot the difference between a teen whose antagonism may be a normal part of growing up and one who is seriously troubled and possibly suicidal?
MM: That’s the big question parents and schools have right now. How do you identify potentially dangerous kids? Should we have a dress code that keeps all the kids looking the same? Should we shake them down before they come into school?
What we look for closely is any change in behavior of any kind– academic, social, you name it. This raises red flags, and we’ll deal with it. We do have some dress codes. For example, no hats are allowed, a respect issue that’s also a big help safety-wise. We often have people from off-campus come on wearing hats, and they wonder how we know in a second that they are not students here. We can identify them far away and know something is amiss. Our dress code also prohibits negative messages and showing too much skin. But we don’t have rules against earrings or hair color, and I don’t plan to change that.
DW: When you spot behavioral changes, how do you handle them?
MM: We have counselors and a psychologist on campus who can address those changes and work with the parents. We’re not too worried about violence per se, but whether they are going to get in serious trouble because they are so angry or so alienated — yes, even here in Malibu. We will, and have, intervened when we become concerned about the stability of a student. We also have a close relationship with the Juvenile Intervention Team of the sheriff’s office who also work with the families and the kids. [See sidebar.] You know, there are all kinds of conflicts in schools that can bring out the anger — conflict between teachers and students, conflicts between student and student. If you’re watching closely enough, you’ll probably see it. But, I guarantee, no matter how good you are, you won’t see it all.
DW: So what do you do?
MM: Our teachers are paying very close attention, all the time. We also have two security guards (unarmed) who are paying very close attention, too. But we also do much more than that. Every student has to have at least one adult here they feel comfortable talking to and they trust; I don’t care whether it’s me, a teacher or one of the custodians; it’s a policy basic to our philosophy here at Malibu High. We also have an advisory program where every faculty member and some classified employees meet with students every Friday to go over academic stuff but also to just talk. And the same advisor stays with the student throughout his or her high school career.
DW: Have any students ever brought weapons on campus?
MM: There have been no incidents involving loaded firearms, but large knives, by that I mean knives with blades 4 or 5 inches long, have been carried on campus.
DW: I understand you have a zero-tolerance response to drugs. What about weapons?
MM: If you’re caught with even a pocket knife, you’re suspended. If it’s a larger knife, just like with guns, you’ll be recommended for expulsion. Drugs? The policy is an immediate transfer out of the school, and if there is a recurrence in another school in the Santa Monica-Malibu district, then the student is recommended for expulsion. We’ve had 20 or 30 transferred out over the last six years, and about five of them were eventually recommended for expulsion.
DW: Unlike many principals, I understand you also stay closely involved with the students by getting out of the ivory tower and teaching [Advanced Placement history].
MM: Yes. It gives me an hour a day every day to be out there listening and getting the feel of what’s going on on campus. It helps tremendously to be physically available, and have a close personal relationship with the students. It earns me the trust of a lot more students who will come my way and talk to me if they sense problems out there.