What Really Works to Make K–12 Schools Safe

There has never been a question about whether schools need to be safe places. Of course they do.

Not only because they operate in place of the parent — or, “in loco parentis” as it is known formally — but because learning, which is the purpose of schools, cannot take place in an environment that fails to meet this basic need.

The Landscape of Safety Requirements

The 1999 Columbine High School shooting taught us much about this issue when law enforcement waited to act, and school staff and first responders failed to work in concert. As this horrendous incident showed us, schools and community agencies need to have physical safety protocols in place before events unfold.

Following the Columbine tragedy, schools across the country questioned their practices, reviewed their policies, created new ones, conveyed them to their communities, reinforced their relationship with local police agencies, and practiced their implementation with students, faculty, and staff. These steps are what the public typically thinks of when we talk about school safety.

It may seem obvious to say that educational settings must be safe places, but safety in K–12 schools is a complex matter. There are laws, mandates, and policies that guide each school and district regarding protection from danger, risk, and injury in their institutions. As of 2014, 33 states had mandatory school safety or emergency plans for all schools, and many localities had enacted additional measures through local laws or regulations. Beyond such requirements, the U.S. Department of Education has published its own recommendations for high-quality emergency plans.

It is, of course, necessary that the school environment is safe. Indeed, without it being so, learning cannot take place. But there are other layers of safety that are central to schools as well. Essential to the enactment of physical safety preparations is the attitude with which leaders and teachers implement such requirements.

The Other Contributors to Learning Safely

20th-century psychologist Abraham Maslow sought to explain the systems that motivate people beyond external rewards or internal desires. His theory is known as the hierarchy of needs and begins with biological and physiological needs (food, drink, shelter) and moves to safety needs (security, order, law, stability), and on to needs of love and belongingness among colleagues, family, and friends. At the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy are esteem needs, such as achievement and mastery, and self-actualization, which is understood as achieving personal growth and self-fulfillment. Based on his theory, individuals can move to the next level once they meet the needs of the preceding tiers.

So why is this important for schools and their community of families?

Climate

According to professors Reece Peterson at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Russell Skiba at Indiana University, schools that take steps to prevent violence and other negative student behaviors often also foster positive learning cultures:

Almost all programs that focus on basic prevention of violence, drug abuse [or] dropping out … also focus on creating a positive school climate. Whether at school or at the individual level, effective intervention requires a wide spectrum of options that move significantly beyond a narrow focus on punishment and exclusion, which themselves can contribute to a negative school climate.

Once they attend to the important physical security of their communities, “love and belongingness” are the safety work of schools. In New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio recently announced additional training in restorative justice for school safety officers, moving the city’s schools away from punitive disciplinary practices that frequently resulted in students being removed from their learning environments. The city will also increase the number of guidance counselors and substance abuse specialists, examine social-emotional issues in schools, and employ a new director of school culture and climate.

While these added staff can certainly improve the city’s chances for success — specialists are, after all, part of the solution — it’s nonetheless important to recall that it is teachers who are in direct contact with students all day long. Educators, of course, need to be supported with appropriate training and by leaders who create safe learning environments, but it is the teachers themselves who have the best chance of developing mutually respectful relationships with their students. The overarching goal is to keep classrooms active and safe, and any distraction from the exchange of teaching and learning — like punitive disciplinary measures — threatens to undermine this aim.

Values

Attitudes about how people are treated, understood, included, and valued are key to creating and maintaining a safe environment. In an effort to help schools move towards improved school climates, the U.S. Education and Justice Departments released guidance on moving from punitive responses to behavior to more developmental ones.

In the 1990s, school shootings combined with the war on drugs led districts and schools to crack down on students, even for minor infractions. But the country gradually moved away from that approach, as advocates and education officials became concerned that too many students were forced out of the classroom unnecessarily, derailing their academic progress over relatively minor problems.

The Significance of Belonging for School Safety

Important as they may be, legislation and guidance are not what change people’s hearts — and it is from the hearts of educators and their leaders that a safe environment is built and maintained. It is in reflecting on how people are treated that we have a view into whether the environment is a safe one for learning. Inclusion, kindness, respect, encouragement, belief, support, all are heartfelt aspects of a school culture that engender a safe environment in which teachers can take instructional risks, students can take learning risks, and everyone — even new students — can be welcomed into the fold.

Read the latest news and updates on education news and use Noodle to ask how schools near you are creating safe learning environments.

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