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Making Schools Safer: A Relationship Opportunity and a People Solution

Posted by William Grace Frost on February 23, 2016 at 12:00 AM

Creating safer schools is a relationship opportunity that first and foremost, needs a people solution. Adding more surveillance cameras, metal detectors and security guards will help keep the guns and bad guys out, and make schools more “secure”, but the majority of “safety” problems happen within the schools themselves. No amount of beefing up security can stop kids’ prejudices, emotional acting out and peer-to-peer mistreatments from getting through the front doors.

Inside schools is where the daily incidents and stresses of bullying, cyber-bullying, harassment and other forms of mean and thoughtless behaviors most often develop and take place between students. And it is these continual stressors that have become the source of students feeling more and more guarded, anxious, depressed, performing poorly in academics and often completely staying away from school.

We can take heart in knowing that shifts are taking place in numerous schools across the country and that many of them are committed to transforming their climates into environments of respect, kindness and compassion.

So the good news is that we do know how to make schools safer and achieve better educational outcomes. This can be accomplished by focusing on transforming school climates, or cultures, utilizing an “inside-out” approach. This relationship-based approach is built on a foundation of social norms change and a discipline model that utilizes restorative practices. It emphasizes the power of student voice and the importance of positive youth and adult relationships.

Given our experience in providing support, training and consultation to more than 2000 schools across the country over the past 15 years, we have compiled the following keys to success:

  • If we want our students to be compassionate, respectful of differences and courageous enough to speak up, we must begin by finding our own courage first – it starts at the top. Educational leaders, from school boards and superintendents to building administrators, must be willing to make an honest and comprehensive assessment of their schools’ strengths, weaknesses, gaps and opportunities for improvement. Starting with a “deep dive” analysis will go a long way in ensuring that school climate improvement planning is built on accurate data and leads to measureable and sustainable results.
  • It takes strong organizational leadership to change the culture and climate of a school. Discipline procedures and practices are effective when all key stakeholders, from the administration and school board to the students, parents and staff, are included in the development and implementation of behavioral policies.
  • Increasing student voice and utilizing a peer to peer role-modeling approach is the quickest, most cost efficient and effective way to change the social norms on campus and reduce bullying, cyber-bullying and harassment. By identifying and training the socially-influential leaders in each of the campus cliques to set an example of courage and compassion in their words and actions towards others, over time the social acceptability of bullying can be eradicated. This is the model employed by Community Matter’s Safe School Ambassadors® Program.
  • Successful teachers and staff must put relationships first, taking the extra time to greet students by name, offering a kind word or smile, being “hall-friendly” and cultivating authentic connections with students. These actions pay off in students developing a stronger sense of belonging, less staff time spent disciplining and more time for teaching and learning (and reduced staff overwhelm!).
  • Discipline needs to be focused on restoration rather than punishment – restorative practices include powerful tools and strategies that maintain connection, restore relationships, repair hurt, and ultimately reduce discipline incidents; disagreements can also be diffused well before they get to the point of altercation and harm when restorative practices are used preventatively.

We applaud the educational leaders, school boards, administrators, teachers, parents and community members who are taking responsible, well-informed steps towards creating school environments where our children can maximize their learning while becoming caring and responsible citizens. And most importantly, we are grateful for the thousands of students who day-in and day-out express their courage and speak up when they encounter meanness, intolerance and injustice.

Safety is the issue, and people in relationships of high positive regard is the answer.