Equity & Diversity Opinion

Safe Schools for Everyone

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 01, 2013 3 min read
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Inclusion, acceptance, and empathy are three attributes fundamental to the establishment of safe schools. Intolerance for anything less is essential. We have a responsibility to lead environments in which all children feel safe and are accepted. The challenge arises when we are courageous enough to admit to feeling the most comfort in what is familiar and label it as normal. Merriam-Webster.com offers the following as synonyms for the word normal: average, common, commonplace, cut-and-dried, everyday, garden-variety, ordinary, prosaic, routine, run-of-the-mill, standard, standard-issue, unexceptional, unremarkable, usual, workaday.

Why must school leaders step away from their personal comfort zones? Simply, we are leading multi-cultural buildings with gay, lesbian, transgender, and questioning children in attendance. Also, we are leading buildings with children being raised by people of color, as well as by gay, lesbian, transgender, and questioning parents. We are leading buildings in which our present students will live in a multi-cultural world. One day most will meet, become friends with, and work with folks who are of a different color or from another country. Many will marry across those previously defined boundary lines. Certainly, most of our present students will meet, work, or become friends with people who are gay.

Our charge as public school leaders is to be inclusive. Sensitivity to these issues should most certainly remain our focus. The likelihood of gay children being bullied is great. The likelihood of children of color being marginalized is also great. But, how will we, as leaders, step in and stand up if we have not confronted our own questions and discomforts? How will teachers and other students respond if the culture of the school in which they spend their day is one of ignorance or denial or even worse, condones prejudice?

There was a time, not long ago that African-American children were told they had no right to enter schools with their white peers. They were excluded from the advantages available to white children. After finally winning the right to go to the same schools as white children, they suffered taunting and sometimes torture as they entered the integrated school buildings. They watched it on the news and read it in newspapers and magazines. It did harm. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, we rounded up the Japanese Americans. It did harm. We admit to racial profiling. It does harm.

In their book What If All The Kids Are White?, Louise Derman-Sparks and Patricia G Ramsey offer detailed insight into the challenges of anti-bias multicultural education. They ask,

What are children learning from the vitriolic language, threats, and acts of violence that now permeate political discourse? When children are angry at one another, do we allow them to use racial and other kinds of name-calling or to spit on one another? Do we allow them to threaten or use physical aggression? What are these adult behaviors teaching children about how to constructively deal with differences of ideas and background? What are they teaching children about respectful ways to disagree...?" (pp.7-8).

The focus of the book is on understanding the construction of the idea of “whiteness” in our society and how subtly it is developed and unwittingly contributes to stealth (and sometimes not so stealth) development of bias in young children. However, we suggest the over-arching questions and themes in their book, can help us to look at the larger picture - emotionally safe schools for everyone. These Anti-Bias Education Goals must not only apply to ALL children, but to ALL of us working with them. How we create and maintain the environment that helps children develop these attributes depends upon our behavior and the behavior of the people we lead.

•Each child will demonstrate self-awareness, confidence, family pride, and positive social identities. •Each child will express comfort and joy with human diversity; accurate language for human differences; and deep, caring human connections. •Each child will increasingly recognize unfairness, have language to describe unfairness, and understand that unfairness hurts. •Each child will demonstrate empowerment and the skills to act, with others or along, against prejudice and/or discriminatory actions. (p. 15)

Our children are going to grow up in a world that may, or may not, accept them or their brothers and sisters as equal in America. This ought not be a question in 2013. As the news reports on same sex marriage and as we gather at the Lincoln Memorial to honor the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, our children are watching and learning. It is our moral obligation to make our schools safe for all children at all times no matter what is happening in the legal courts or the courts of public opinion. These are our children, all of them. Once they are safe, they will learn.

Note: Recognizing that we see differences between ourselves and others allows us to reflect upon our capacity for inclusion, acceptance, and empathy. Socio-economics, disabilities, abilities, physical appearance, and gender are some of the other differences we may see that are not mentioned in this post. There is no intention to prioritize or place higher value on one or the other. The theme remains the same for all. We will be better at leading inclusive, accepting schools, if we first recognize bias in ourselves and begin to change our actions - while committing to act upon bias when it is presented in the actions of others.

Derman-Sparks, Louise, Ramsey,Patricia G. (2011). What If All The Kids Are WHITE? Anti-Bias Multicultural Education with Young Children and Families. New York: Teachers College Press

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.