Although creating safe school environments is a top priority for students, teachers, and community members, changing existing school dynamics can feel like trying to push an immovable object. Issues like instability of leadership, a chronic lack of resources, and confusion on where to focus our collective attention, makes providing an environment where students and educators feel safe a unique challenge.

According to educators, dealing with the lack of certainty and clarity about what safety strategies will be implemented in their schools can lead to confusion and fatigue. The constant back and forth about what constitutes best practice, and how to implement the ever changing and sometimes contradictory policies, can be especially draining for educators who are deeply invested in improving the level of safety in their schools. School safety is a difficult standard to pursue when schools are seemingly unable to create a sustained, consistent vision over time. During a recent community conversation, a main concern expressed by community members, especially teachers, was that shifting political climate has had a noticeable effect on the ways in which schools operate, and implement policy. Amidst the aftermath of the pandemic, schools became sites of socio-political contestation, often placing teachers and administrators in the crossfire. As one educator noted, recently it has felt like “the political landscape is counter to what education tries to do.” With vitriolic rhetoric abound and the conflicting aims of those invested in the governance and policies of schools coming to a head, establishing a protocol that could be entrenched over a lengthy period of time, now often feels out of reach for many in educational spaces.

Not all schools have the financial capacity to implement innovative practices aimed to address social, emotional and physical safety but those that do, may have an increased ability to create safe environments. An educator stated that he felt the environment at the Montessori school he worked at felt exceedingly safe, but that sense of safety and freedom was in part due to the unique and financial privilege of his school. As he recounted, “it was really cultivated in this way where the teachers felt supported, the children then felt supported, and then the families, you could help them feel supported. It just cost a lot of money. When you have the funds, it’s unfortunate, but that did seem to be the answer to it all. When you have a bunch of money being funneled into the school, you’re able to have these resources and things like that. It seems like it’s out there but it’s very selective for different people and things like that. Working through DPS this summer…I don’t feel safe there. The teachers were so ‘fried’ and the way they talked to the kids.” He further explained that at the Montessori school students were encouraged to express their emotions, including frustration and anger, and were given guidance on how to handle these experiences. Many schools are unable to address students’ in such an understanding and comprehensive fashion and sometimes resort to other, more punitive measures, to respond to students’ behavior.

Many long-standing strategies to positively redirect or punish inappropriate student behavior may, in the long-run, undermine efforts towards creating an environment in which all students feel safe. According to community members, current school policies regarding managing student behavior often fail to adequately recognize the needs of students and fail to create desirable outcomes like a safe environment. Instead of making students feel supported, some disciplining efforts leave students feeling like they are subject to unwanted scrutiny and surveillance at their schools. According to one DPS alum, the practice of detention, which includes labeling misbehaving students, and then having them detained after school as a form of punishment, may be an ineffective way to improve conditions inside the school. Sending students to detention seems to suggest that having students engage in an undesirable activity, like sitting in a silent classroom after school with other students who have also violated school rules, is a useful intervention for students. However, for many community members, policies that focus on hyper-visible punishment to correct student behavior are ineffective in making schools feel safe for all students.

Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, many prevalent forms of addressing student behavior do not actually help students understand expectations or improve the student experience. One former educator noted that, in part, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that most solutions aren’t rooted and framed in ways that students, and sometimes parents, respond to positively. Strategies that are focused on rehabilitation and reconciliation, like restorative justice, provide a more useful intervention than those rooted in isolation and punishment. “A lot of the positive behavior interventions that people would do for encouraging positive behavior in students were not culturally responsive at all”, one educator stated. “As a teacher, I was like no wonder I’m struggling. I’m using these positive behavior incentives and interventions that don’t necessarily apply to my students at all.” Frequent interactions, even if for negative behavior, can make compliant students associate good behavior with not being noticed, or even invisible. They can then seek to go unnoticed which conditions them to be quiet and uncomfortably isolated in school settings.

Community members, especially educators, voiced that some of the social development which helps students navigate relationships with faculty and each other was stunted due to a shift online due to the pandemic. An educator recalls “how mean and nasty the kids are to each other”. In order to establish a sense of safety and community in the wake of a pandemic, schools may have to prioritize and incentivize the type of engagement that fosters meaningful relationships amongst those in the school. The shift in engagement —in-person to virtual, during the pandemic did not only affect students’ ability to safely engage with one another, many educators noted that they too have been negatively impacted by that dynamic as well. As one educator explained, “It feels like with Covid, social media, anxiety and depression, That communication which was designed to keep us together is actually tearing everyone apart”

It can also be difficult to establish a safe environment when students have spent so much time away from the classroom setting due to the pandemic. The disconnect has deeply affected their well-being and behavior. A teacher stated “these kids were at home and we have no control as staff or as mentors or as people who engage with these kids in a temporary setting. We send them home and a lot of times, for that like 10-15%, we’re sending that 10-15% back home to a place where they don’t necessarily feel safe. I remember having kids that were devastated to have to go home for winter break because they knew that they might not eat.” Students often have no outlet to address and explore their experiences and that can lead to pent up frustration. One former DPS student noted that while he was experiencing homelessness, he started lots of fights in the school and felt that he had nowhere to express his situation without being judged. Although schools can do little to change circumstances at home, they can learn how to create the safety and stability that so many students are seeking. As one educator reflected, “I think about kids who were concerned because their parents weren’t necessarily in a place to consider their social-emotional well being. My mom had me at 15, and I remember going back home and I was at babysitter until 8 or 9 pm. I think about kids that had similar experiences, where you go home but don’t feel emotionally safe. Parents having that gap in resources, schools have taken on this responsibility to try to help try to serve families; but it’s like if you don’t even necessarily have the resources to serve children adequately inside of the building how do we also take on serving families.”

Even schools that provide opportunities for students to navigate their life experiences with professional guidance, often lack the adequate resources for students to utilize the services. Several recent graduates noted that when they were students, mental health services were difficult to obtain due to staff availability and a lack of rapport with the professionals at their schools. As one alum recounted her experience with the only black therapist in her school, “…there was only one of her for a while. So therefore it was the whole student body that needed her. It was very hard to schedule meetings with her. That’s why it’s important to have therapists and counselors of color.” Community members suggested that schools take additional steps to make those resources available to and inviting for students. As one alumni put it,“there needs to be comfort within the students and the therapist to actually begin that relationship and begin that bond. Because I know my brother, he was offered therapy but he never wanted to take it because he found it embarrassing. So I think doing some work in schools themselves around de-stigmatizing therapy and how it can be helpful and beneficial in the long run.”