Opinion Blog


Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School Climate & Safety Opinion

Empowering Teachers and Parents to Speak Up on School Safety

By Rick Hess — March 22, 2021 3 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As millions of students return to school this spring and fall after many months of isolation, angst, and disruption, it’s a good bet there’ll be plenty of issues relating to behavior, discipline, and safety. For me, this raises the question of what, if anything, policymakers should do to ensure that the raft of well-meaning reforms intended to help schools tackle these challenges are indeed keeping students and staff safe. On that count, I’d like to flag a couple intriguing proposals posed by Max Eden, the author of the USA Today bestseller Why Meadow Died: The People and Policies that Created the Parkland Shooter and Endanger America’s Students (full disclosure, Max just recently joined AEI as a research fellow).

Readers should know that Eden is a skeptic when it comes to the bundle of programs and approaches generally characterized as “restorative justice.” He argues that policymakers, because they have come to fear that discipline is inequitable and harmful for students, “have tied teachers’ hands and undermined their authority in the classroom” by mandating restorative-justice practices. This is so, Eden says, even though “study after study after study has documented harm to learning, and school survey after survey after survey has suggested” that teachers have concerns about what disciplinary reforms mean for school climate and safety.

These disconcerting facts have gotten short shrift, Eden argues, due to the emergence of a culture where teachers are less likely to report disciplinary problems. Eden writes that “the pressures to underreport have been baked in” as a result of the U.S. Department of Education threatening districts with “invasive investigations” and lost “federal funding” if it has concerns about their discipline tallies. He explains, “Teachers who complained could be subject to retaliation from their principals, because their principals could be subject to demotion from their superintendents, because their superintendents could be subject to investigations and negative press coverage.” Moreover, he argues, “With teachers too intimidated to speak out and with school board members’ tendency to defer to their superintendents, the parental/democratic feedback loop has been severed.”

For those who share his concerns, Eden asks: How might that loop be repaired? He has a few suggestions on that count for state legislators.

First, he calls for them to establish a “nonprofit organization” to conduct annual audits “of school safety and climate through anonymous, open-ended teacher surveys.” He suggests that such surveys will provide a valuable tool for getting reliable data on what’s happening, enabling teachers to feel heard when it comes to school safety and helping ensure that local news coverage offers more than “puff pieces” rooted in superintendent claims about reduced suspensions.

Eden also urges that state legislatures require every school district to “establish a parental advisory committee on school safety,” with a dedicated agenda line at every school board meeting to raise problems and concerns. He argues that this would give parents a forum to readily raise concerns and teachers an “anonymous avenue” to have their concerns be heard by the board through the parental advisory committee. Eden suggests this mechanism might surface concerns that otherwise go unaired and prompt some board members “to recalibrate” their assumptions.

At the end of the day, whether or not one agrees with Eden’s concerns about restorative justice, it seems to me that giving parents and teachers more confidential avenues for raising concerns about school safety is a proposition all of us could get behind. After all, policies that reward and celebrate school leaders for reducing disciplinary actions may result in less misbehavior—or simply in misbehavior being met with less discipline, potentially compromising the safety and well-being of students and staff. Distinguishing the one from the other requires credible data points and honest talk. We should all want to know how safe schools really are and whether well-meaning practices are actually making them safer—and Eden has offered a couple practical suggestions that’ll help with just that.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

Special Education Webinar Reading, Dyslexia, and Equity: Best Practices for Addressing a Threefold Challenge
Learn about proven strategies for instruction and intervention that support students with dyslexia.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Personalized Learning Webinar
No Time to Waste: Individualized Instruction Will Drive Change
Targeted support and intervention can boost student achievement. Join us to explore tutoring’s role in accelerating the turnaround. 
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools
Student Well-Being K-12 Essentials Forum Social-Emotional Learning: Making It Meaningful
Join us for this event with educators and experts on the damage the pandemic did to academic and social and emotional well-being.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety ‘Their Vote Matters’: Schools Provide Training to Students on Working the Polls
“We just want to make sure that our youth ... know that they’re important, their vote matters, their vote counts, they can get involved."
Jenny Roberts, The Morning Call
4 min read
Allen student Yovian Torres Gomez makes notes on his packet during a poll worker training Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022, at Allen High School. Allen students will be working as clerks, handing out paper ballots and directing them where to go, when voting concludes Tuesday in the general election. Some will also be translating for voters.
Allen student Yovian Torres Gomez makes notes on his packet during a poll worker training Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022, at Allen High School. Allen students will be working as clerks, handing out paper ballots and directing them where to go, when voting concludes Tuesday in the general election. Some will also be translating for voters.
Amy Shortell/The Morning Call via TNS
School Climate & Safety A Parkland Dad Pleads for Action on School Safety
A father whose daughter was killed in the 2018 mass shooting spoke at a summit the day after the gunman was sentenced.
3 min read
A women in a black t-shirt lifts small painted stones out of a cardboard box, placing them on the ground at a memorial covered in flowers in front of a large white masonry sign that says "Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School."
Suzanne Devine Clark, an elementary school art teacher, places painted stones at a memorial outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2019, one year after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee/AP
School Climate & Safety A School Safety Challenge: Keeping Crowds Secure Under the Glare of Friday Night Lights
Districts aim to keep students and spectators safe during sporting events, which draw large crowds to a less predictable environment.
5 min read
A police officer stands between rows of caution tape outside of a white high school football stadium that is brightly lit against the night sky.
A Tulsa Police officer films the area outside of the McLain High School football stadium in Tulsa, Okla., after a shooting during a Sept. 30 football game.
Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP
School Climate & Safety What School Is Like for LGBTQ Students, By the Numbers
Here are survey statistics on harassment, support, and fears experienced by LGBTQ students during pandemic-era schooling.
4 min read
Image of a student with rainbow straps on their backpack.
iSTock/Getty