A new white paper from K12 Insight, “Keep Your Students Safe,” takes a look at the challenges of school safety and offers steps school leaders and their teams can take to create a safer, more empathetic school culture and climate.
According to the special report: School leaders who want to improve school climate and promote student success have to ensure that safety is chief among their concerns. “Safety is one of the essential foundational elements of school climate, or the quality and character of school life,” according to the National School Climate Center.
It’s especially important for school leaders to survey students about their feelings about school safety. “The single most common school climate survey finding is that students typically report feeling much less safe in schools than parents and school personnel believed,” said Jonathan Cohen, president and co-founder of the National School Climate Center.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance might offer insight as to why. Eight percent of high school students reported being in a physical fight at school in the past 12 months, 6 percent reported being threatened or injured with a weapon in the past 12 months, and 20 percent reported being bullied on school property. Such statistics make it easier to understand why 6 percent of high school students reported that they did not go to school on one or more days in the past 30 days because they felt unsafe.
School leaders also need to be aware of experiences students have when they are not at school, says Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, director of government relations for the National Association of School Psychologists.
“It’s really recognizing that for all kids who walk into that school building they have a history and they have a set of experiences that may or may not require some type of mental and behavioral or social and emotional support in order for them to learn and to thrive in the school building,” she said.
Schools are now expected to develop formal policies and procedures meant to ensure the physical and emotional safety and well-being of students and employees. It is imperative that schools work with their communities, including parents, students and staff, to create and institute data-driven safety policies and procedures. It also means that such efforts should be considered a perennial work in progress.
The “3Ps of Safer Schools,” the report says, are:
• Policy – Create school safety and student discipline policies.
• Plan – Develop and implement a plan to communicate your policies.
• Process – Create a process to ensure the policy actually sticks.
On the Policy front, Cohen recommends that school leaders work with students as “co-leaders” from the outset. Both Cohen and Strobach agree that including students helps bring attention to blind spots that school leaders and others may miss when it comes to safety considerations. It also helps them earn buy-in from the people most immediately affected by their decisions.
Strobach emphasizes that your school safety policy should address both physical and emotional needs. Appropriate and reasonable physical safety features might include locked doors, adequate lighting, and sufficient adult supervision, to name a few.
Emotional safety features might include a discipline policy that teaches and recognizes positive behaviors. “The end goal is not to punish the student; the goal is to help them,” Strobach said.
Cohen agrees, adding that it’s important to cultivate a culture of “upstanders,” meaning people who help when they witness someone hurting or being hurt. Part of that requires teaching students about the importance of empathy.
Finally, school leaders need to ensure that their policies are aligned with the latest school safety knowledge and research. For example, both Cohen and Strobach caution against instituting zero-tolerance policies and relying on suspension and expulsion, both of which have been linked to feeding the school-to-prison pipeline.
The Plan is how you communicate your policy with your community. A good starting point might be to establish a school safety and crisis response team, Strobach suggests. The team should include a top-level administrator, teachers, a school resource officer, and at least one person responsible for each of the following areas: mental health, the school building, transportation, and communications. The team might also include members from community law enforcement, fire, and community mental health.
These team members can provide leadership in communicating the policies, garnering feedback, and getting buy-in from others in the school community. Strobach also recommends developing a robust reporting system, where students can share concerns or fears about themselves or fellow students without fear of reprisal.
In California’s Temecula Valley Unified School District, students and parents use an online tool called Report Bullying. The solutions, built on the Let’s Talk! platform from K12 Insight, makes it possible for students and parents to immediately report instances of bullying, threats of suicide or other safety concerns directly to administrators from a computer, smartphone, or tablet 24 hours a day.
Process means training members of the school community – especially dedicated safety and crisis response team members – and rehearsing what they are supposed to do in different situations.
One way to ensure your policies and plans stay top of mind is to proactively seek feedback. An interactive dashboard is a useful tool for tracking what happens if an incident is reported, who is responsible downstream, what steps are being taken to remedy the incident and the outcome.
“It’s a never-ending process,” says Strobach. “You never put something in place and you’re done. It’s a forever thing.”
Find the full report at www.k12insight.com.