To improve school safety, school districts are faced with a myriad of options: hiring more school resource officers, enhancing alarm systems and video surveillance, and investing in mental health, just to name a few. While progress is being made, there are a few underlying threats to safety that may surprise administrators and staff. Addressing these threats through a multidisciplinary approach is one path to improve safety in schools.
What is School Safety?
School safety is a topic that can be broadened beyond physical safety, to a focus on safe and supportive schools. The U.S. Department of Education defines school safety as schools and school-related activities where students are safe from violence, bullying, harassment, and substance use. This definition focuses on the absence of threats to safety. Yet it is missing part of the larger picture – elements that cultivate and improve safety.
Its definition also notes that school safety is linked to improved student and school outcomes. In particular, emotional and physical safety in school are related to academic performance. This link to student success positions safety as a high priority for schools today.
Elements of School Safety
The graphic above, adapted from youth.gov, emphasizes that physical safety is only one component of many across categories of engagement, safety, and environment that make up a safe and supportive school.
Factors across these domains include policies and programs around mental health, bullying prevention, trauma-informed practices, social-emotional learning, and LGBTQ inclusion and competency, to name a few. Addressing these issues through evidence-based prevention and trauma-informed interventions that extend to all staff and students helps to ensure that students can learn without distraction.
Some Overlooked Threats to Safety
Physical and psychological safety issues, if not addressed, impact safety for all students. But underneath these issues are vulnerabilities that make students feel unsafe. The former head of the Office of Safe and Healthy Students within the U.S. Department of Education identifies three of the biggest threats to improving safety in schools:
- Loneliness – Students who experience loneliness are vulnerable to bad influences due to difficulty with relationships and low self-esteem.
- Fear – Fear among students can cause overactivity of the brain when forced to alternate between a fight or flight response.
- Hopelessness – Students who experience sadness and hopelessness are more likely to self-harm, and more vulnerable to depression, suicide, and substance use.
Students who experience loneliness are vulnerable to bad influences due to difficulty with relationships and low self-esteem. Fear among students can cause overactivity of the brain when forced to alternate between a fight or flight response. And finally, students who experience sadness and hopelessness are more likely to self-harm, and more vulnerable to depression, suicide, and substance use.
These threats might come about with the presence of elements like firearms and crime on campus. They may also emerge from lack of a school culture that encourages engagement and a supportive environment. How can schools begin to address feelings of loneliness, fear, and hopelessness among students with the end goal to improve safety?
The Role of a Caring Adult in Improving School Safety
One solution is the presence of caring adults. Caring adults in schools foster relationships with students that contribute to their development. They establish clear standards of behavior to enforce safety policies across the school. But beyond this, teacher-student relationships offer meaningful interactions with students that contribute to their social-emotional development, sense of worth and belonging, and sense of trust and safety at school.
For example, LGBTQ students are 2-3 times more likely to be threatened or assaulted compared to their peers. These students need adults at school who foster a safe space for LGBTQ students. When students come out, a supportive adult is prepared to engage with them and understands their challenges.
One key to fostering these relationships lies in the power of conversation. Conversations across a classroom or one-on-one with a student are not always easy, especially when dealing with sensitive topics. Addressing the underlying causes of loneliness, fear, and hopelessness – whether they are internal or external – can take place during these conversations.
Improve School Safety with Kognito
At Kognito, we design simulations that allow a safe practice space for these conversations. But we also believe in scalability. In the PK-12 space, we primarily focus on training K-12 personnel as a means to behavior change and a shift in knowledge and attitudes that translate to safety across an entire school, or even district.
Besides taking this approach to training, we are also doing more to measure improvements in school safety. Recently, our research team implemented measures of school safety into our simulation surveys. With our data so far, we’ve found that over 93% of elementary, middle, and high school educators agreed or strongly agreed that applying what I learned in this simulation is likely to have a positive impact on rapport between myself and my students. Stay tuned for more data on these measures of school safety from us soon.