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Amid walkouts, 3 ways to engage students in school safety

Wednesday’s student walkouts in schools across the country presented a difficult challenge for school leaders: How to amplify strong student voice on important issues, while ensuring their safety and compliance?

Starting at 10 a.m., students in schools across the country walked out of classrooms for 17 minutes in honor of the 17 victims of last month’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

The large-scale demonstration was in part a memorial, part political demonstration in favor of stricter gun control and school safety, organizers from Women’s March Youth EMPOWER tell NPR.

District leaders prepared for the demonstrations in different ways–by threatening mandatory three-day suspensions for any students who participate to treating the walkouts as unexcused absences to encouraging students to partake in alternative programs and demonstrations on school grounds.

No matter what steps your district may have taken, one thing is clear: Students want to be heard on school safety. The question for school leaders is: Are we listening?

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The school safety issue won’t be solved by walkouts; and strategies for protecting students from gun violence won’t be hatched in today’s 17-minute hiatus. Which is why it’s important to foster ongoing conversations about school safety with students, parents, staff, and community members.

As the school safety debate rages on, here’s three steps for school leaders to help ensure students have a voice in important conversations.

  1. Set up a listening station. What steps are you taking to track the conversation, so that you understand different perspectives and points of view and can issue informed responses? Make sure you have a system to listen to students and others on different channels, be it on social media or email or online. Don’t let legitimate concerns or suggestions slip through the cracks. Missed or ignored messages don’t do anyone any good, and can easily erupt into social media firestorms. It happens faster and more often than you’d think.
  2. Build a culture of trust. Students, parents, and staff need to know that your schools have their back—and that you’re prepared to listen, authentically, to what they have to say. Give everyone in your school community an opportunity to provide feedback or ask questions about a related issue or policy that concerns them. And, make sure you respond to those concerns in a timely and responsible way.
  3. Listen and act. It’s all well and good to say that you’ll listen to your community about gun violence. But if you don’t follow up on that promise with definitive action, what’s the point? School leaders need to listen with a purpose. That means responding thoughtfully and taking difficult steps to tackle the tough issues.

What is your school or district’s approach to student demonstrations? What steps, if any, are you taking to amplify student voice around school safety? Tell us in the comments.