Lori Brown, Ed.D. is an educator, author, and RFP Manager/Writer at Scholastic, and President of Dawn Star Consulting. As part of her doctoral research, she formally defined the construct of “violent writing” for educators, working with experts in the field of threat and risk assessment, and this research continues to shape her thoughts about matters of school safety. In this post, she discusses the need to redefine “safe schools” with insights for educators.
I recently drove through a drive-through line and was amused by the young man behind the microphone, as he kept shouting: “Anything else? Anything else?” He was eager to please his customers! As I sat waiting for my food, I suddenly realized that I was tired, mentally and physically, from the year’s “what elses.” There had been too much change to process in the past twelve months.
Without doubt, 2020 forever changed our homes, communities, and schools. Faster than you can spell “pandemic,” educators had to shift their instructional and leadership approaches overnight, and rapidly identify expanded or new digital/virtual learning solutions, while simultaneously caring for their own families. The national shell shock that soon settled over our communities left weary educators, families, and students regularly asking, “What Else?” So many of us have collectively wondered if we will ever feel safe again, and almost cringe at the thought of hearing another news story on yet one more tragic circumstance, incident, or result.
Safety matters, and I would argue that physical, mental, emotional, and social safety must be intensely addressed for all stakeholders if academic efforts are to succeed in 2021. While there has been much chatter and initial research about how the pandemic altered PreK–12 instruction, (Rand Corporation, 2020 & World Bank Blog, 2021), there has been less chatter about how the pandemic radically altered our core concept of “safe schools.” Make no mistake that “safe schools” now has a broader focus because we’ve added layers of trauma, fear, grief, and loss to our collective school psyche.
The construct of “safe schools” has always covered a broad spectrum of school/district concerns—from fire drills to chemistry lab fumigation, and from lice protocols to lock down drills (Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center – US Dept. of Education) but with the pandemic came an added layer of biological threats that potentially were not fully addressed in anyone’s safe school policies. MSA programs rarely offer a course entitled “How to Lead your School through a Pandemic” for aspiring school leaders.
The pandemic rapidly transitioned pre-COVID-19 concerns from a laser-like focus on weapons/attacks in schools to germs in schools, meaning we temporarily shifted the focus of some of our greatest “safe school” fears. But as a partially vaccinated society is starting to transition back to in-person learning, we are once again unfortunately hearing news stories of targeted acts of violence, meaning many of us fear “safety” and “security” are terms of the past, especially in our schools. It may make us question whether we need to worry about the threat of guns or contagious germs more on any given day. So, the question becomes, “What do we do with burdened heads and hearts and fearful spirits so we can personally ascertain that we are safe at school?”
I suggest each school and district pursue a collective and collaborative focus on redefining “safe schools,” asking tough questions about what we need to feel physically, mentally, and socially safe in our classrooms, hallways, and offices. Yes, we still need our “safe school” fire and tornado drills, but we also need to avoid pretending that all is normal and/or that we can just do our jobs, forgetting the year that we just endured. But how do we do this well?
My suggestion is this: consider adopting what I call the “3D Conversation Around School Safety”:
- DETERMINE: Collaboratively determine that you and your staff members can’t “fix” everything that your students and stakeholders are feeling/facing, and know that is ok. This is not a time in our nation when educators need to be super heroes, because we’re all slightly wounded super heroes at this point, and we each still need to heal. Trying to do the impossible of fixing all that is broken among stakeholders will only hinder desired progress. Determine as a learning community to manage your collective stress with daily realistic expectations. For example, some days realize that our fears and emotions are getting in the way of memorizing facts and figures. Formal learning in 2021 may require more brain breaks, and we should consider incorporating expanded self-reflective writing activities across our curricula (a known, proven strategy for addressing trauma) so we can process fears that threaten to destroy our new teaching, leading, and learning experiences in a radically altered world.
- DIALOG: Dialog with colleagues, family members, school/district leaders, and community leaders about ongoing fears, concerns, and frustrations. Ask pointed questions about current or new cleaning protocols and new approaches to comprehensive mental health supports for and from the community. Think outside of the box as you dialog with community partners to find the supports you and your students need. Remember, the first step to making sure you/your students are safe and secure at school is by admitting whether you’re really ok on any given day. Some days may be better than others.
- DARE: Dare to say when you’re not feeling ok and to embrace “different.” Change is not necessarily a bad thing, and because we know mental health supports will be as critical as academic supports in the year ahead, challenge your colleagues and community to embrace resources and services that seamlessly weave into the curriculum to develop readers and resiliency, and to develop creative thinkers and coping skills. Seek out resources and community partners that can offer support for instruction, mental health, and student and educator advocacy (check out the sample list of resources below to get started).
Improved safety and security in school mandates an improved determination to dialog about what we’ve lived through, as we dare to find solutions that are new, innovative, and critical. Help your school/district advocate for its needs as you find your voice and embrace a 3D approach to school safety.
- Safe and Sound Schools: Resource Library
- Social-Emotional Learning Resources from Scholastic Magazines
- 50 Resources to Support the Mental Health of Teachers and School Staff
- Using Literacy-Based Approaches to Promote Social Competence and Foster Resilience
- Coping in Hard Times: Fact Sheet for School Staff
- Stress Management Strategies for Teachers
- List of social and emotional books to help students feel safe and supported
- Best Practices in Self-Advocacy
Barron, Maria, Cristobal Cobo, Alberto Munoz-Najarinaki, and Sanchez Ciarrusta. “The changing role of teachers and technologies amidst the COVID 19 pandemic: key findings from a cross-country study.” World Bank Blogs. https://blogs.worldbank.org/education/changing-role-teachers-and-technologies-amidst-covid-19-pandemic-key-findings-cross. (Accessed April 5, 2021).
Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools: Technical Assistance Center. https://rems.ed.gov/AboutUs.aspx. (Accessed March 28, 2021).