School Safety, Climate Hinge on Communication
It seems like every other day there's another horrifying headline about students hurting other students—or worse, harming the very adults hired to protect them. Who can forget the video that went viral of the school bus monitor being harassed by students until tears ran down her face? Or the elementary-age students in Washington, D.C., who were given cocaine by a classmate? Each year, more than 3 million K-12 students are suspended or expelled.
Daniel Huerta, a mental-health counselor at the organization I work for, Focus on the Family, has seen many of the faces behind those statistics. Not only does he help field the thousands of calls we receive from distressed families, but he's also a licensed clinical social worker who spent five years in the public school system. One thing his experience has made crystal clear is that campus discipline issues arise from a complicated mix of cultural dynamics both inside and outside the school building. Given that reality, what can schools realistically do beyond simply enforcing consequences for wrong behavior?
Here are a few suggestions based on our work with families and feedback we receive from professionals on the ground like Huerta.
Proactively involve parents. While schoolwide programs and teacher trainings are beneficial, unless those lessons are reinforced at home by students' parents, they'll likely not have staying power. One way to tackle that reality, drawn from Huerta's and other mental-health professionals' work with schools, is regular "family nights." Such events can feature free workshops for parents on how to better connect with their children and support the school's efforts to maintain discipline. These should be community affairs: Local businesses might provide food and door prizes, while volunteers organize family crafts. Relationship building is key: Families not only can get to know one another, reducing their isolation within the community, but they also might begin trusting educators more and become better aligned with the school's goals.
Be consistent. A lack of widespread buy-in among teachers often sabotages successful implementation of school safety initiatives. Already overwhelmed with state and federal mandates, educators can be tempted to view these as yet more items on an already-unmanageable to-do list. The result is pervasive inconsistency. A child might experience one teacher severely correcting him for bad behavior, only to have another completely overlook it. The problem is, children are savvy and quickly adapt. Too often, they just learn to be manipulative or deceptive, rather than learn the lesson that "I can't do this here."
Taking the time to help educators emotionally invest in the "why" of what they're doing, in addition to learning the "what to do," helps strengthen consistency. Identifying a core group of teachers who are natural leaders and can inspire others to embrace common goals is also essential, suggests Joe Coles, a former principal who conducts teacher trainings for Rachel's Challenge, a program for student and adult empowerment. Founded by the parents of the first victim in the Columbine High School shootings, 17-year-old Rachel Scott, the organization provides an estimated 2,000 trainings and 2,500 anti-bullying assemblies in public schools annually.
Education Week Commentary asked six thought leaders to share their answer to this question in Quality Counts 2013. Read the other responses.
Create a life-valuing culture. Coles also emphasizes "discipline with respect"—the ability to hold kids accountable while conveying a deep-seated regard for their innate worth as human beings. That philosophy echoes the principles we hold dear at Focus on the Family, particularly when it comes to restoring a culturewide respect for human life. When you consider the onslaught of degrading social-media messages, television ads and violent video games that bombard children—combined with high levels of family trauma and breakdown—is it really any wonder that so many students enter school already desensitized to the value of others' lives, not to mention their own?
That's why we believe the best strategies for maintaining school safety and positive climates must include ongoing communication with parents and communitywide efforts to strengthen families. It's also why we support policies that send the core message to children that they are worthy of protection from harm and have inherent worth as human beings, regardless of how society might classify them economically, socially, or otherwise.
Vol. 32, Issue 16, Page 39Published in Print: January 10, 2013, as Keep Communication Lines Open