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One year after Parkland, are we giving students a strong enough voice in their safety?

Parkland student voice

It’s almost impossible to believe that this week marks a year since the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

The anguish and worry borne from that day are still raw in the hearts and minds of school leaders, educators, and—especially—students across the country.

In the wake of the shooting, former school superintendent Dr. Gerald Dawkins posed some important questions about how school districts are engaging students on the issue of school safety. A year later, many of these questions still remain.

As we think back this week on the horrific tragedy and pay respect to those students and educators who were lost, school leaders should also reflect on how they can invite students into important conversations around their safety and security.

In her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch reminds us of our tendency to reach for non-existent silver bullets when educating our children.

In the aftermath of seemingly every school tragedy, be it in the form of mass shootings, student abuse, or student suicide, administrators and others question whether some nugget of information, unearthed on social media, might have made a difference—if only it were discovered by the right person, at the right time.

Such thoughts make emotional sense. But, we know better.

We know that there is no panacea. There are too many uncertainties, too many ifs. Just as no single innovation can guarantee learning, no one solution can guarantee the safety of every child.

Voice of the student

Collectively, we must explore every opportunity to make our schools safer.

But amid the rush of new solutions—automatic doors, metal detectors, social media monitoring—we’d be wise not to lose touch with our most reliable source: students themselves.

Before we can make our schools truly safe, we need to understand how our schools make students feel, both physically and emotionally. Do our young people feel safe? Are there places on our campuses or in our buildings that they think are dangerous?

What about our policies? Are these clear? Do students understand how they work and what to do in the event of an emergency?

Inviting a handful of students to participate in town halls, or sit on committees is a nice gesture. Surveying students annually is a good idea. But it’s hardly enough.

Our students want and deserve a voice in school safety. They know their fellow classmates better than anyone. They have their ears to the ground. That’s why it’s important to give them a safe way to report potential problems—whether it be something they overheard in the hallway, or a post on social media.

See something, say something

We need to change the culture in our schools. We need to empower students to speak up, to sound the alarm. As leaders, we need to demonstrate our commitment to working with our schoolchildren to build safer schools.

The recent national student walkout was a big test for school districts throughout the country. When it comes to student activism, fellow school leaders must walk a tight line between safety protocols and allowing students to express their views through civic action. Every school leader needs to make the best decision for his or her district. But we also must respect the desire of students to be heard.

Every student, parent, teacher, and community member should know and recognize the importance of vigilance and the life-saving power of their own voice. They should understand how to speak up—and know where to turn when they see something, or when in search of help.

Student safety should not be a reaction. It isn’t something we do only in the wake of the Parklands and the Sandy Hooks and the Columbines. It is foundational to our mission. And it needs to be part and parcel of our approach. Every. Single. Day.

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About the Author

Gerald Dawkins
Dr. Gerald Dawkins is a former school district superintendent in Louisiana and Michigan. He is currently senior vice president of superintendent and district relations for K12 Insight. You can reach Dr. Dawkins at gerald.dawkins@k12insight.com.

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