From the 2013 NSOC magazine: Edited by Joseph Mazzola with permission of the authors

In the wake of too many school shooting tragedies, we at CEP know that educators and parents in every school community are looking for solutions that work, so we posed this question to several national experts, and here is what they had to say.

A. From studying thousands of schools, we know that many students feel very unsafe.
We also know that educators and parents underestimate how unsafe the students feel. There are many experiences—individual, interpersonal, and organizationally—that can contribute to students feeling and/or being unsafe. And there is not a simple or single solution to this very complex problem. Short term curriculum and programs do not typically make a difference. However, there are some school-wide processes, as well as teaching strategies and one-on-one methods, which can lead to students feeling and being safer in schools. Here are some that align perfectly with CEP’s Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education and our Center’s school climate reform efforts.

Systemic goals and processes:

Measurement: We can use climate surveys to measure not only how safe students feel but also how supported and engaged they feel in school. Measurement helps educators better understand the scope of the problem. It also jump-starts the process of students, parents, and staff learning and working together.

Engaging the whole school community and social norms: Social norms color and shape how safe students (and adults) feel in school. For example, all schools have norms that help shape what it means to be a “witness.” When I see or hear about “bad stuff” (someone crying or being bullied), am I a bystander (one who simply observes it) or an upstander (one who does something about it)? Making “upstander” an explicit and practiced social norm is one of the most important steps school leaders can take.

Teaching and learning:
Social, emotional, and civic learning: We can and need to help students develop social–emotional competencies and a moral compass. This is an important process that supports students feeling and being safe. Remember, anger is virtually always a secondary emotion. There is always a primary emotion: frustration, fear, and/or hurt. The unmet need that lies “underneath” is anger. When students learn and understand this, they begin to ask themselves Why am I so angry, and what are helpful ways to respond or cope?

One-on-one relationships:
Connections with adults: We have long known the single most important step we can take to support students feeling safe is to ensure that every one of them is “connected” to a caring and responsible adult in school. There are very simple and effective ways that school leaders can ensure that this is the case. Making it happen is crucial.

Jonathan Cohen, Ph.D.
Co-founder and President
National School Climate Center

A. Imagine what a school would look like if each student found connections
to him or herself when in the building. The connections would lead to self-awareness, self-confidence, and a touch of humility; healthy and supportive relationships; development of compassion and community; and a spirit of engaged learning and sense of purpose.
This connectedness I will refer to as “wholeness.” The more “whole” our students and staff are, the safer our schools will become. And when I refer to being “safe,” I mean psychologically, emotionally, intellectually, and physically safe.

A few years ago, a 16-year-old student in Denver stabbed another boy to death. He told the police he was being bullied and carried the knife out of fear. I interviewed 40 students to see how they made sense of what happened and asked what they would do if they knew a fellow student had a knife at school. Most said they wouldn’t do anything if they knew the student (because they would get in trouble). But they also said they wouldn’t do anything even if they didn’t know the student (because it was none of their business).

I believe the above students lacked the type of wholeness that is crucial to school safety. They were not looking beyond a very narrow focus which largely linked back to themselves: “It’s none of my business.” “I don’t want to get my friend in trouble.” Students need to look beyond that very narrow type of focus. They must reflect on how their actions (or failures to act) could impact the welfare or safety of others. These students were not “connecting” to the broader school community.

Needless to say, this is not a new concept or challenge. In fact, way back when, Socrates said, “Since our schools do little with self-reflection, we should not be surprised when our students pursue unexamined lives and inflict their unexamined values on others. Instead, reflective learning can empower us to engage the world more effectively.”

The capacity for connectedness to self and others, and to the world of learning, should be one of the fruits of education. And to achieve meaningful connections and wholeness, I encourage schools to follow the Eleven Principles. As a principal, I used them to transform my school. They really do work. Just as importantly, they lead to an environment whereby students feel more connected with others, and where they and everyone else in their schools are safer because of it.

Charles Elbot, Ed.M.
Leadership Coach
Denver Public Schools

A. Safety is both physical and emotional.
It is experienced in the moment—when students encounter something that places them at peril, or when they otherwise feel threatened, anxious, or exposed. Their body responds, they secrete stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, and they may experience a fight-or flight impulse. Lack of safety may go unperceived, although there may be short- and long-term impacts.

The level of safety is affected both by the school environment and by the individual and collective social–emotional competencies of students and staff whose behaviors and interactions affect each other. The perception of safety may also be experienced differently by different students, depending upon how vulnerable they are—for example, whether they have been victimized or have experienced trauma, or have an anxiety disorder.

Schools can keep students safe by providing a safe, supportive, respectful, and caring environment where students are both secure from physical harm and emotional toxicities (such as bullying, sarcasm, and prejudice) and nourished by environmental assets such as connections to caring teachers and students. Since students’ needs are diverse, safety can best be realized by implementing a tiered approach that addresses each student’s experience of safety, support, and connection. This tiered approach combines the following elements:

Universal promotion (a welcoming environment and supports for social–emotional learning)
Universal prevention (positive behavioral interventions and supports and bullying prevention)
Early intervention when students appear to be at risk (students who have poor attendance, display problem behavior, or have experienced trauma)
Intensive individualized interventions for students who are at greater levels of need

For students to be safe, schools should build and support the social and emotional competencies of all students and adults. For example, it is harder to exhibit self-control, focus on your school tasks, and act in a pro-social manner when many peers act impulsively or don’t believe school is important, or exhibit anti-social behaviors. Hence it is important for schools to intentionally teach and evaluate the effects of social and emotional learning (SEL) programming.

Although effective programs are important, SEL should be woven into the rituals and functioning of classrooms and schools. This will work only if adults model appropriate social and emotional behavior, so it is important to build and support the social and emotional competence of adults as well and to provide them with the supports to exhibit and model competence.

David Osher, Ph.D.
Vice President, Education and Human Development
American Institutes for Research