Often, when we think about safety in schools and other institutions of learning, our first inclination is to think of safety from threats of bodily harm — understandably so. But, it is important to recognize that the concept of safety in schools goes beyond physical welfare. Creating safe schools also means students and faculty are socially and emotionally secure.. One educator noted that without primary concerns, like those of well-being, being met, it is difficult to imagine how something as complex as self-actualization can occur. As she put it, “you have to have those fundamental things to get to self-actualization and ideally in a safe-school, it’s going to give every student and family, and community the opportunity to do that [self-actualization].”
Undoubtedly, keeping schools free from gun violence has become a major concern for policy makers, community members, students and faculty. Though the nature of these concerns vary, our community conversations revealed that protecting schools from gun violence was a prevailing concern. As one alumni noted, “…especially with what’s happened in the US lately, kids can’t go to school without running the risk of potentially dying at the end of the day. And how can we parents, families, and supporters send kids to school every single day knowing that we run that risk of not seeing our child at the end of the day?” Despite the obvious need to protect schools from gun violence, it has proven difficult for schools to produce solutions that actually provide peace of mind to those concerned about gun violence. The urgency of the concern and the difficulty of producing agreed upon solutions, leave many unable to articulate what can be done in the short term.
A parent stated that they want their children to be protected but feel as though the rush towards heavily arming and securing schools seems reactionary. Others noted that the connection between mental health and gun violence, presents a complicated problem that has no clear solution. They were troubled by the lack of a coherent strategy, which leaves schools vulnerable day in and day out, while school administrators deliberate about what the most appropriate plan of action is. An educator commented that the disconnect between higher levels of authority and those actually working in schools, often leads to failed implementation when a strategy for keeping schools safe is presented. For instance, safety plans may be good in theory but impractical for actual school settings. Unaccounted for differences in schools, like the types of locks on doors, and the plurality of spatial arrangements make it difficult to implement these top down policies. The lack of clear guidance has real consequences for those in the school building and that latent stress can cause fatigue and consternation.
One teacher noted that the concerns about gun violence often take all of the oxygen in the room and while those concerns are important and valid, it is also important that we think comprehensively about safety. As one educator noted, “I think that so much of the policy is about, the fact that to keep schools safe we have to stop school shootings, that’s absolutely true, but that’s not the daily safety that we’re talking about. That’s one small piece.” Community members also commented that the fixation on physical safety can occupy all of the conversational space and cause other elements of safety to be neglected. For metro area community members, keeping students safe from harm includes considering how their routine interactions with their environment and peers impact their well-being.
Unfortunately, many students experience material conditions that are hazardous to their well-being. Some community members pointed to a lack of funding and aging infrastructure as areas of concern for student safety. One alum observed,“when you look at the infrastructure, especially in these older buildings… are they really protecting these kids?” Going to school in old and outdated buildings, some of which have central air conditioning units, or are functioning with bad sewage systems, do not provide community members confidence about the well-being of their students. A George Washington High School alumni recalled, “I would tell kids, like don’t drink from that water fountain, there’s probably lead coming out of that water. I remember…we would literally have power outages. Some of these power outages happen in the winter, so there’s no heat in the entire school.” They continued “…but yet they still make us attend and they would still make us not wear any hats or hoodies. So, we’re literally freezing and this building has no power.”
Not only is infrastructure a concern in relation to the physical safety of students, but occurrences within the neighborhood, outside of the actual school, can also impact the ability of students to be safe while at school. One parent mentioned that they became increasingly concerned about the effect of the external environment on the campus after they heard about used needles being left in the playground. Especially in the case of young children, being exposed to sharp and hazardous objects presents a particularly serious type of public health concern. As this parent noted, “I know we can’t keep them in a bubble but especially on school grounds just to search and keep an eye out and maybe as adults maybe in the morning or the afternoon taking a look around the playground making sure everything is safe there’s not anything lying around given the neighborhood that we’re in.” An alumni remarked that she never felt physically unsafe in her school but often experienced in-school lockdowns, due to public safety incidents in the neighborhood.
Metro area residents expressed significant concerns about whether schools are currently able to create a safe social environment for students. As one alumni recalled, “in middle school I don’t think I felt really safe going to school. Not like I thought I was going to get assaulted physically, not that kind of safeness, just like as in the safety to be myself.” Many students, parents, and educators noted that there is great difficulty in ensuring that students are safe from others’ actions while in school. For instance, an unsafe social environment may allow for bullying to take place, which can have tremendous negative impacts on the well-being of a child. This dynamic can be especially pervasive in an environment where some students behave aggressively towards others who are different from themselves. One alumni noted, after moving to the United States from Ghana, she entered a social environment where she was consistently demeaned for having dark skin. These same bullies even put gum in her hair.
Physical traits aren’t the only characteristics that bullies latch on to. Other aspects of identity like one’s sexual orientation or neuro-divergence have also led to bullying. An aunt became aware that students were bullying her nephew because of his autism; knowing that her nephew was experiencing this type of treatment at school broke her heart. “To see kids in his own class make fun of him or tease him or tell him they’re not going to be his friend, those types of things as an aunt pissed me off”, she remarked. Metro area residents seemed to be concerned that students were not safe to express “their true authentic selves.” Students often don’t feel safe to openly express themselves because many teachers are unskilled in navigating situations in which students are behaving in problematic ways. One alumni who now works in education noted that in part he didn’t feel completely safe to openly identify as gay in high school because he noticed that teachers did not intervene when derogatory expressions were being used. He articulated, “I think teachers don’t have tools to address that in a meaningful way that doesn’t shut down the person that’s using that language and it can be any derogatory language, and then turn it into a learning opportunity. We don’t teach people that ever.”
Schools however, are already strapped for resources, which limits their capacity to be able to provide safe environments. One educator noted that it has been suggested that schools provide safety beyond the classroom, which she questioned, noting that schools can barely provide safety within their own walls. As we have observed in community conversations, issues such as emotional health, infrastructural degradation, gun violence and social conditions are prevailing safety concerns. As we continue to engage community voices, we must also consider that the notion of being safe involves subjective judgment about how one feels in an environment. Establishing safe schools also means developing the capacity to identify how different people experience safety, and learning what makes or has made them feel unsafe in schools.