School Climate & Safety

Small Ways Leaders Can Build Schools Where Everyone Feels Like They Belong

By Denisa R. Superville — June 26, 2023 5 min read
Group of diverse people (aerial view) in a circle holding hands. Cooperation and teamwork. Community of friends, students, or volunteers committed to social issues for peace and the environment.
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It takes a lot of time and effort to build a community where all students and staff feel like they belong.

But there are interim—and meaningful—steps principals can take as they wait for long-term efforts to take root.

Ryan Judge, an assistant principal in upstate New York, and Mark Anderson, an executive director of high schools for the Hacienda La Puente school district in California, say communication is key to ensuring that students and staff feel safe.

“If their perception is that they are not in a safe school, they are not in a safe school,” Judge said.

Live your mission and vision

Many schools’ mission and vision statements include language indicating that they are inclusive learning environments and safe, welcoming spaces.

Judge and Anderson said principals and school leaders must communicate that message to the school community. It can’t just be words on a poster board. “You have to live it,” Judge said.

When Anderson was principal of Marshall Fundamental Secondary School in Pasadena, Calif., students recited the school’s mission statement, which included a nod to diversity, during the morning announcements. That value was infused throughout the school, Anderson said.

Anderson pivoted to that when someone challenged a school initiative that some deemed divisive, he said. He listened to the complaints and objections, but he would also let them know that embracing diversity was part of the school’s culture.

“You have to create that vision and culture that you want to be inclusive and you want [everyone] to be safe,” Anderson said.

“You can’t be afraid of people who think differently,” he added. “If someone pushes back, make it a conversation.”

Judge said schools do a poor job communicating not just their values but their initiatives and why they are championing them. Build bridges, clarify what the school is doing, counter the noise, and explain the purpose, he said.

“The more we could invite the community in, the more we could have their support,” he said. “We are, overwhelmingly, doing right by kids every single day.”

In the mid-2000s, long before gender-inclusive bathrooms became the political and cultural lightning rod that they are today, Judge was in a district that added gender-inclusive stalls.

Not everyone in the community was happy. But Judge said he and other staff explained that instead of seeing the issue as a divisive one, it could be seen as a more inclusive step. The bathrooms could be used by all students, including those who may not want to use one that’s crowded or who may have health issues.

“We explained why it was necessary,” he said, “that it was not something that benefits one, but that benefits all. It’s not just for non-binary or trans students. There’s nothing that said that anyone can’t use it. It’s something that your child could benefit from, regardless of [their identity.]”

The conversations worked about half of the time, he said. But the key was explaining to parents why the school was taking the step and reassuring them that if an issue arose, it would be handled immediately.

“You heard them out, and you reassured them that you [were] looking out for their kids,” said Judge, who is gay.

Know who is—and isn’t—participating in clubs and groups

One way that school leaders can ensure they’re building inclusive communities is to look at who is participating in clubs, groups, and, especially, student government.

Student governments and student councils are often made up of the students who are the go-getters, the ones who are always involved. They are not always representative of the school’s overall enrollment.

When Anderson was principal of Marshall Fundamental, he urged those in the student government to recruit peers outside of their social circles, he said.

That goes for other activities, too. Are the same students participating in and raising their hands for every activity? That may indicate that some students may not feel like there’s a safe space for them on campus, Anderson said.

Students were not thrilled when Anderson first suggested creating a spot for others, because “their safe space was student government” and they’d won elections for the right to be there, he said. They felt Anderson’s suggestion was unfair. But they talked.

“I would say, ‘You hang out together at lunch, on the weekends, are you really representing the voice of the whole school?’” he said.

Adults initially identified the underrepresented students who should be recruited to participate in student government. But later, students were the ones who noticed that no one from the special education program was involved. They went out and recruited a student.

“Leaders have to do the work first, and you have to do the convincing before students adopt it,” Anderson said.

The same goes for other affinity spaces, Judge said. Clubs, such as Gay-Straight Alliance and Black student councils, can help students feel a sense of belonging on campus, said Judge, whose district has a diversity club and a human rights club, both spaces for like-minded students to come together.

Recognize that some staff will need more time

Judge said there’s a danger in assuming that everyone is on the same page. Administrators have to give their staff members space to learn and grow.

“Every single staff member, and administration included, is at a different place in their journey,” he said.

Leaders have to spend time reflecting on who they are and what they need to work on, he said.

“If someone doesn’t understand what it’s like to be a member of the trans community, how can they really support them as students?” Judge said. “Or how can an administrator have a staff member, who is transitioning—how can they support that staff member if they themselves don’t understand it?”

On the flip side, it’s also problematic to rely on staff members and students from diverse backgrounds to explain or represent their communities when a related issue surfaces in the news.

“Every time there was an issue related to gay issues it was, ‘Ryan, what do we do?’” Judge said referring to a period earlier in his career. “It was awful.”

Similarly, when discipline issues concerning students of color pop up or a race-related issue surface, districts often turn to the staff members of color to handle it.

“Tokenizing minority groups just continues to hurt people,” he said. “People, regardless of their ethnicity, should be able to have conversations about race and ethnicity. It shouldn’t have to be the person of color doing it. We need to build our capacity in order to be able to make change.”


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