Student Safety

Safety comes in many forms.

By | Allan Tellis, Chief Writer, Denver

  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 a safe environment in a school can mean different things for different people and requires that the social, material and psychological environment of a school be addressed. Safety is largely a perceived experience while also being referential for a shared understanding of environmental threats. The interplay between power, vulnerability, and subjectivity presents schools with a unique and complex challenge as it relates to keeping all students safe. Through exploring a series of recent community conversations we see how community members are defining and experiencing safety. Despite similar concerns about the lack of safety in schools, these conversations make it clear that making schools safer is a complicated and delicate task.

      Community conversations revealed that protecting schools from gun violence was a prevailing concern, though the nature of these concerns varied.

As one alum 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?”

      However, as community members also pointed out, concerns about gun violence can often take all of the oxygen from the room. While addressing gun violence as an important and valid aspect of establishing school safety, community members suggested it is also important that we think about other facets of school 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.”

      For instance, going to school in old and outdated buildings–some of which lack central air conditioning units or are operating with faulty sewage systems–creates an important set of safety concerns.

A George Washington High School (DPS) alumnus 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.”

      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 surrounding environment on the campus after they heard about used needles being left in the playground. 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.”

Resources and Priorities

      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, the constant back and forth about what constitutes best practice can be draining. School safety is a difficult standard to pursue when schools are seemingly unable to create a sustained, consistent vision over time. This dynamic can also be complicated by different experiences of similar efforts to enhance school safety. For instance, some current teachers and former students report 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.” Importantly, our community conversations revealed that students were often unclear about why the SROs were in schools in the first place, and this lack of clarity 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?

      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 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…”

       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. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, many prevalent forms of addressing student behavior do not actually help students understand expectations or improve the student experience. 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.

Safe to be Me

      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. 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.

As one alum 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.”

      Dynamics which jeopardize the perception of school safety are not always a result of potential physical harm. For instance, many metro area residents suggested that faculty diversity not being reflective of student populations negatively impacts school safety.

According to several alumni 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, stating: “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 sense of 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.”

      Community conversations also revealed that students incorporate the treatment of educators into their own perceptions of safety. Commenting on the mistreatment of faculty in DPS, one former 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.” Area school districts have had difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers of color in part because they can’t 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,” the former DPS educator continued.

      Many metro area community members highlighted that the ways in which some students’ families are treated can contribute to students feeling unsafe in schools.

Due to things like language barriers and cultural differences, families can 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.”

Social and Developmental Safety

      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. 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. 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 inside schools because students behaviors are deeply affected by the time they spend away from the classroom setting. The tension in attempting to establish safe schools while students’ are struggling in their day-to-day lives became especially transparent during and after the pandemic. According to current and former teachers, the strain difficult home lives places on students can deeply affect their well-being and behavior, which in turn impacts how students experience safety in their schools. 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.”

      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, they pursued mental health services provided by their school and preferred to work with counselors of color. However, securing therapeutic sessions was consistently difficult due to the limited availability of their preferred counselors and a lack of rapport with other mental health 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.”

      We learned through our 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.