No child or staff member should feel unsafe within the walls of their school, and no parent should feel insecure when saying goodbye to their child at the bus stop. If you remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs1, our most basic needs such as physiological (food, water, and sleep) and safety needs (security and shelter) must be met first in order for one to reach more complex needs such as self-esteem or self-actualization. If you think about Maslow’s hierarchy and today’s student, one cannot achieve good grades, gain self confidence, or be a good role model to others if he or she doesn’t feel safe.
Feeling unsafe in school can be a result of bullying (physical and emotional), excessive pressure from teachers, current events, school violence, or from internal factors such as test anxiety. School administrators have a responsibility to create an environment in which students feel secure, respected, and supported so that they can grow, mature, and be successful. A safe student loves to learn! Students should also feel that there are adults on campus who are resources in times of concern or when they feel threatened. What follows are suggestions to help foster feelings of security across your district and create a safe haven for students.
Six Ways to Create a Safe Haven for Students and Staff
#1 — Establish Transparent and Enforceable Safety Policies
Every school district should create and maintain anti-bullying, anti-violence, non-discrimination, and anti-harassment policies. If it has been some time since your policies were created, or your school does not yet have clear policies, now is the time to work with your board and a team of parents, faculty, staff, and students to create or update such documents. The policies should not only describe the types of behaviors and actions that are prohibited and not tolerated by the school, but it should identify disciplinary consequences for those found to be in violation.
Creating defined policies is the first step. The next step is holding students accountable. At the start of every school year, require students to read and sign the school’s policies. Send a copy home and ask parents to sign as well. This step reinforces to students the seriousness with which the school takes all aspects of student safety, and will make the process of following up with necessary disciplinary actions straightforward.
#2 — Publicize You Policies
To reinforce your district’s commitment to equity and compassion, share your policies with the community. Be public and consistent in your school’s key messages and policy statements when it comes to anti-harassment and inclusiveness. Execute communications that reinforce your policies year-round. For example:
- Post an anti-discrimination statement in the main entrance to your school.
- Issue a public letter to the community announcing your new policies and plans for reinforcement.
- Host annual district-wide events that support inclusion and promote diversity.
- Hold community roundtable discussions annually that incorporate parents, teachers, community members, faculty, and students to discuss the school’s progress and additional areas of opportunity.
- Create a student art project that would directly involve students in the creation of a permanent community or campus display reinforcing the value the district places on inclusiveness.
- Regularly reinforce the school’s commitment to fostering a safe environment with updates and messages on school-approved social media accounts.
#3 – Be Honest About Your District’s Biggest Challenges
Create a committee formed by students, parents, teachers, staff, and school leaders to collaboratively identify known issues in your district that lead to issues or violence. This step will require honest recognition of such often difficult-to-discuss topics as income disparity, gender dynamics, parental involvement, and racial inequalities. Understanding such issues, however, is the first step toward making decisions to foster collaborative discussions, mutual understanding, and greater awareness. After identifying trigger points that lead to student disagreements or negative interactions, work with your committee to build an action plan that will help address the identified issues facing your district. Set SMART goals that are strategic, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely.
#4 – Build a Crisis Intervention Team
While many incidents typically occur between two students, or within a small group, every school should be prepared to help their students and staff heal after an incident that impacts a large population—or the district as a whole. If you have not already done so, create a crisis intervention team comprised of social workers and school counselors with the training and certification needed to offer emotional support to students impacted by an adverse incident or consistent harassment. Such resources should also be able to work with parents to refer students to external counselors in cases where more emotional support is necessary.
#5 — Require Training for Teachers
Hold annual training for faculty and staff to help them develop the skills needed to understand how to manage both disciplinary incidents and confidential discussions with students in need of help and support. Training may need to take the form of sensitivity training, diversity and inclusiveness training, or communications training. By making such learning initiatives required for all faculty annually, you create a consistency in faculty and staff behavior that will reinforce your commitment to offering students a haven.
#6 — Refine Policies Using Quantifiable Data
Part of your policies and procedures should involve easy, optionally anonymous reporting of incidents that violate school policies. Once you have a few years’ worth of data collected, conduct an analysis to determine:
- If the number of incidents of various types of discrimination or harassment are on the rise, remaining consistent, or declining.
- The most common types of policy violations.
- Trends that would indicate opportunities to minimize gaps in understanding between specific population groups further.
- Trends at the school, class, or neighborhood level that could be specifically addressed.
Not only will your district need anecdotal insights from trusted resources, but the analysis of quantifiable metrics will also be invaluable in helping you further refine policies and action plans on a go-forward basis.
Every school district should be a place where students can focus on their education, and not fear that they will be judged or criticized based on their creed, gender, race, or other personal factors. How school leaders define harassment and inclusion, reinforce policies, and react when a violation occurs can help to minimize bias and foster understanding and acceptance. In the formative adolescent years, young people need to be surrounded by positive, respectful, and safe environments so that they can build confidence and understanding that will further reinforce generation after generation of inclusiveness and kindness.
1. Cherry, K. (2019, July 21). How Maslow’s Famous Hierarchy of Needs Explains Human Motivation. Retrieved August 13, 2019, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-4136760↩