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Feeling safe at school

Feeling Safe at School: The Role of Strong Relationships

It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since the attack at Columbine High School in Colorado.

As we remember the young victims and mourn the tragedy of lives cut way too short, it’s also important to reflect on what’s changed since that spring day in 1999–and what hasn’t.

Columbine was not only an attack on people–it was an attack on the ideal of safety and security in our public schools. Unfortunately, recent school shootings like the ones in Parkland, Fla. and Santa Fe, Texas have only helped to embolden the perception that America’s schools are unsafe–whether that perception is warranted or not.

Last year, in the wake of a string of school shootings, we asked Dr. Nora Carr, a leading voice on school communications and safety, to share her thoughts on how schools can not only keep students safe, but ameliorate negative perceptions about school security.

On this solemn anniversary, we thought her words were worth another look.

Feeling safe at school is as important to a child’s well-being and learning as being safe. Children learn more and perform at higher levels when they feel emotionally safe. The same holds true for educators and parents, whose faith in school safety is fragile after a horrific year of school shootings.

Restoring that trust is going to take time, despite the fact that children are far more likely to be killed or injured riding bikes, walking to school, riding in an automobile or, sadly, due to child abuse and neglect, living in their own homes than they are in our nation’s classrooms.

Statistics are cold comfort in the wake of unspeakable loss, however, and our brains are evolutionarily hard-wired to overreact to dramatic and terror-inducing threats, no matter how rare. Today’s hyper-partisanship and politicizing combined with never-ending news and social media only make matters worse.

So, while it may not be surprising that only 27 percent of parents expressed high confidence that their children are safe at school on the latest PDK poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, it should signal that additional communication is needed on the part of educational leaders.

Public schools have invested millions during the past two decades in risk assessments, anonymous tip lines, active shooter drills, armed police officers, door buzzers, panic alarms, shatter proof glass, video cameras, metal detectors and wands, bullet proof doors, unarmed security associates, and school redesign to improve safety and security. Still, parents remain afraid for their children while in our care.

What we haven’t done enough of is educate students, staff, parents, and elected officials about what really works–and what doesn’t–when it comes to improving school security and safety. We also haven’t spent enough time focusing on what truly keeps kids safe: trusting relationships with adults and positive, nurturing school climates that make social-emotional learning a priority.

If we had, children and adults might be less afraid. We would invest more time and resources in creating inclusive and emotionally safe schools where children and adults thrive. Our children and their families would increase access to mental health services and supports, and restrict access to guns and military-grade weapons.

We’d spend fewer dollars on expensive nametag makers, video cameras, and other technologies that, at best, provide useful evidence in a courtroom, but do little to keep children from harm, or prevent attacks from happening.

It starts with trust

Fostering trusting relationships between students and adults, between and among students, and between parents and their children, is complex, challenging work. Challenging racism, nativism, and other forms of bias, bigotry, and oppression is also essential, especially when we consider the research tying bullying, personal failure, and anger to school violence.

These so-called “soft” attributes of classrooms and schools are foundational to improving not only school security and safety, but learning and life outcomes for children, particularly those who have not yet met with enough success to feel wanted, loved, valued, and valuable.

As a seminal joint analysis on school shootings issued by the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education indicated, students often have information adults need to know. When they trust adults, are encouraged to share information, have multiple methods for doing so, and believe adults will react positively and take appropriate action, they’re more likely to alert teachers and administrators about their concerns. The same is true for parents, volunteers, and other adults in the community, which is why the “see/hear something, say something” message is so powerful.

Engaging parents, educators, and the public in deep conversations about these complex issues and what the research says about possible solutions will build more trust than adding more tasers and guns to the equation.

Communication is key

School public relations professionals have a vital role to play in this, along with superintendents, safety directors, principals, teachers, nurses, social workers, mental health clinicians, and counselors. Compelling and effective communications helps students and adults feel safe as well as be safe.

Facilitating authentic engagement requires making sure that a wide variety of voices and perspectives are heard, beyond the usual responders who tend to dominate the public comment period at school board meetings. While technology isn’t a substitute for face-to-face communication, it can help extend school officials’ reach when managed well.

Klein Independent School District (@KleinISD), for example, recognizing that safety was top of everyone’s mind as children headed back to school, tweeted a short but powerful “welcome back” video that quickly itemized the district’s safety initiatives, particularly any new efforts for this fall.

Read more about Klein ISD’s #KeepKleinSafe initiative

Klein also tweeted several heart-warming posts about their annual drop-out recovery walk, where teams of educators go door-to-door to convince would-be drop-outs to stay in school. Another Klein tweet (#Culture4Caring) showcased something most schools do, but fail to tell people about: #grandparentsday, as did SWW Francis-Stevens School in Washington,D.C. (@dcpublicschools).

Social media can break down traditional barriers of race and class in terms of active participation when outreach is targeted specifically to under-represented groups and communication platforms, or their influencers. For stellar examples on using Twitter wisely and well, follow @dcpublicschools, which used social media to share heat warnings and tips for staying cool during the back-to-school heatwave.

Authentic engagement can occur online as well through technology platforms that allow more parents to engage directly with superintendents, principals, and teachers, especially when leaders foster high expectations for responsiveness.

Relationships are built on consistent and ongoing contact and interaction, rather than intermittent communications. While difficult to sustain–though content aggregators and scheduled posts can help–digital relationships can support school and district trust-building efforts, and often reach people who would never show up at a PTA event or superintendent forum.

As trust and relationship-building tools, effective communication and engagement across a wide variety of platforms from one-on-one discussions to widespread digital campaigns represent essential components of any school or district safety and security plan. It’s not enough to keep kids safe. They need to feel safe as well, and that requires lots of love, and ongoing communication and validation.