Creating a safe environment in a school can mean different things for different people. Safety is largely perceived as well as being referential for a shared understanding of threats in an environment. The interplay between power, vulnerability, and subjectivity presents schools with a unique and complex challenge as it relates to keeping all students safe. Without a robust understanding of what makes schools unsafe, general observations can be used to assert that people universally perceive themselves to be safe in schools.
For instance, racial differences between the student body and educators may on its face not seem like a threat to safety, however, many metro area residents suggest that DPS having over 70% students of color and only around 30% teachers of color can cause students to feel alienated from their school. It ultimately creates an environment that feels unsafe to these students. According to several alum and teachers, not seeing faces like their own can be a source of anxiety and discomfort for students and staff. One Black alum framed her experience this way, “I do remember how intimidated I would feel when an older white woman would come approach me to talk to me about something. It could be about anything, but every time…I would get so scared, and I would be so afraid that I did something wrong, even if I did nothing wrong. I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting lately and I did not realize how much anxiety being in that system caused me to have later on in life.”
Race relations in the United States are inextricably connected with power relations, and students are capable of understanding and interpreting those dynamics as they evaluate their own safety. As one white educator noted, “students of color are never going to feel safe when they’re in a system where 70 percent of their teachers are white women. We can read all the books and be as woke as we can be, but it’s just not the same.” Interactions within schools can trigger students to converge these experiences with other encounters with institutions designed to surveille and monitor them and others like them. One alum stated, “it’s just like the way they speak, sometimes they speak to you in a demeaning tone and it’s just scary and intimidating especially also growing up in the immigration system where it’s full of, you know, white people perpetuating systems of abuse to my brown family.”
Racial dynamics and previous life experiences can also shape the way students and faculty relate to efforts made to establish a sense of safety within the school, like the presence of School Resource Officers (SROs). Some current faculty and former students reported having a very positive relationship with SROs, while others felt that their presence alone was a source of fear and anxiety. As one alum and current DPS parent noted, “my immediate reaction… anytime the police are around, I don’t feel safe, ever. I get physically tense. Him [an officer] being there, I felt like I was being watched.” On the other hand, those who had positive experiences with the SROs noted that the officers were well integrated into the social dynamics. A DPS alum recounts, “I had to think before I realized ‘oh yes’ we did have SROs because they did not have that hefty policemen vibe at all. They were very cool, they were Black men and women actually, and people were really cool with them. During lunch, for instance, you’d see a lot of my classmates going over to talk with them and joke around with them. You could tell that they weren’t really there to police us, they were just there to protect us in case anything happened. I’m okay with SROs being in schools if they’re in that capacity.” In part, these officers presented a sort of familiarity in the eyes of the students which moved them from being distant regulatory figures, to being seen as supportive and encouraging adults in the school.
An educator noted that given the possibilities of dangerous situations taking place inside or outside of the school, the presence of SROs created an enhanced sense of safety for her. She also commented that students were often unclear about why the SROs were there in the first place. This skepticism created a sense of stress and anxiety amongst the students. Were they there to protect them from external threats, or to search and surveille them? It appears that there is often a lack of transparency around the role of SROs, especially in regards to their relationships with the students. A DPS alum stated that between inheriting cultural knowledge about police, compounded with several bad experiences with police, he has developed a resounding distrust of officers and their intentions. He imagines that many students like him, are also unable to perceive these authority figures as being there solely to maintain safety.
Adults in schools tasked with keeping students safe are often overwhelmed and overextended, making some of those efforts at fostering safety counterproductive. For instance, one student noted that she felt most comfortable dealing with a therapist who was a woman of color. However, in her school there was only one Black counselor, and that drove demand for her time beyond her capacity. An extended wait time caused some students to resign from pursuing mental health services completely, and caused others to be concerned that they would be unable to receive the support that they needed.
Several teachers agreed that students incorporate the treatment of faculty into their understanding of safety. How could students understand themselves to be safe, if those in powerful positions are treated poorly and routinely feel in danger? Speaking to the mistreatment of faculty in DPS, one former DPS educator remarked, “it’s not only damaging to me as the adult, but kids pick up on that, and then to them you are sending that message —whether you are blatantly saying it or not, that this person that looks like me is not valued, so I’m also not going to be valued”. DPS has displayed a chronic inability to recruit and retain teachers of color. This is partially due to the inability of the district to provide a sense of safety for these educators.“A lot of BIPOC educators move on, because they don’t feel safe, they don’t feel supported, they don’t feel seen, they don’t feel like what they have to share or you know their experience their culture is relevant or supported and they begin to shrink and it takes them a year to speak up… that psychological safety is very prevalent in my thoughts as well”, they continued.
Teachers are not the only adult figures whose lack of safety deeply affects students. Many metro area community members highlighted that the ways in which some students’ families are treated can contribute to students feeling unsafe at schools. Due to things like language barriers, some parents are neglected and seemingly deemed undesirable by schools. These dynamics can cause families to have an unease and discomfort in relation to schools, which has consequences for students’ perceived sense of safety. As one educator noted, “if the parents don’t feel safe, then the kids don’t really feel safe in school. I’ve been thinking about that because I come from a bilingual multicultural background…specifically with multicultural kids, we kind of neglect the parents a lot. I feel that’s something that needs to be prioritized with the safety concerns.” Students often notice these cues about how their parents are made to feel disconnected from the school and which can in turn make them “feel not included or that they don’t belong.” He noted that having positive dialogue with parents, especially in front of the students, made students more relaxed, comfortable and engaged.
One student recounted that after being put in ESL classes, she lost her accent which permanently changed her relationship with her family. “Not being able to communicate with my family in the same way anymore, also just puts a strain on the way my family views me as a Mexican-American; which is a very big issue regardless of the education system. I wish that in school I was allowed to speak Spanish, and in school they had Spanish translations for my parents.” She believes that gap in accessibility led to her parents not attending academic and social events at the school, like athletic activities and parent-teacher conferences. Finding schools to be antagonistic can trigger students to feel unsafe and unwanted in their classrooms. One student noted that she felt unsafe because her social studies teacher wouldn’t stop saying “racist shit.” The teacher seemed to have an odd obsession with Africa, at one point playing the controversial film The Gods Must Be Crazy for the class with no reasonable justification.
Even without an immediate threat, structural and social elements of schools can make students feel unsafe. Sometimes students don’t realize the impact that insecurity can have on their well-being, until well after the damage has been done. If schools are to be spaces that positively impact the overall well-being of a community, it would seem they must be safe for all those involved.