Creating a Safe Learning Environment in Schools
While it is true that violence in schools has been steadily declining since 1992, a number of schools are far from being the safe havens we want them to be. According to a study conducted by the University of Michigan in 1998, roughly 23 percent of students nationally claimed injury or threat from a student with a weapon in both public and private schools. A related report from the Department of Justice indicated that during the same year, more than 40,000 students between the ages of 12 and 18 were victims of violent crime on school grounds. In 1999, a critique from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention showed that nearly seven percent of students in grades nine through 12 reported carrying some sort of weapon on school grounds during a 30-day span. While there are never guarantees that you can make schools completely safe, here are some ideas that may help make your school a safe haven.
Organize a school safety committee. School safety is not a one-person job and takes careful planning, monitoring and cooperation by everyone in the school community. Preventing school violence requires an understanding of the differing needs, backgrounds and personalities of the community. Include parents, students, school administrators, counselors, teachers, community leaders and law enforcement officials when putting together your safety committee. The committee needs to be representative of the demographic of the school and should mirror the school’s diversity. A bi-weekly meeting schedule to establish safety polities, develop crisis plans, determine programs for promoting safety and evaluating existing safety measures is a good start.
Establish and publicize school safety policies. Students cannot follow rules they do not know. Therefore, it is essential that the safety committee publicize and distribute the new policies once they are established. Publish them in the school newsletter, highlight rules during morning announcements, and post the policies in classrooms and common area bulletin boards and other visible locations around the school. Do more than simply advertise the rules – make students and parents aware of the consequences for violating them and be consistent in enforcement.
Develop school-wide crisis plans, including specific plans for each classroom. Following the guidelines set but the school district, work out a school-wide plan for safety-related issues such as an armed intruder, fire, or bomb threat. Using the school-wide plan is in place; all teachers should sit down with school administrators to create specific crisis plans for each classroom. It is essential that teachers understand their role in implementing the plans that are developed.
Build a safety resource center in your school library. Set aside an area in your school library for resources dealing with safety issues. Subscribe to publications dealing with school violence issues including drugs, weapons, school law and general safety issues. Also, request materials on the subject of activities, programs and organizations designed to promote safety. Make sure to encourage parents, students, school staff and community members to contribute materials as well. Do not forget to make students aware the materials are available.
Invite district administrators, school board members, law enforcement officers and government representatives to visit your school. The responsibility for school safety extends far beyond the reach of teachers, counselors, and school administrators. Since their ability to promote safety in schools is hindered by a lack of money, resources and personnel, it is essential to build and maintain a strong relationship with elected officials, district administrators and board members, law enforcement and others who may be able to help gather resources. In addition, invite these individuals to the school on a regular basis since different perspectives can provide a variety of new ideas.
Make safety and character education a regular part of the classroom curriculum. Just as most parents make the mistake of assuming that all fundamental educational skills are the responsibility of schools, schools must remember that safety and character education should not only be taught in the home. Teaching character and values should be a key portion of any educational program. Classroom teachers should take the lead and promote safety and character education in their daily curriculum.
Help develop clubs, organizations and programs in your school to promote safety. Studies have shown the best way to prevent violence in schools is to involve kids in positive activities. Students should be encouraged to create or join clubs and programs that promote safety, responsibility and achievement. Create incentives for school staffers to help organize and supervise these activities and push for the establishment of school chapters of major national promoting student safety issues. The schools should also provide resources and facilities for non-school groups such as scouting that promote leadership, safety and positive learning experiences.
Keep lines of communication open with parents, students and other members of the community. Encourage people involved in your school the opportunity to speak with school personnel and let them know how, when and where to reach various parties. Encourage parents and teachers to keep in touch through occasional gathering of teachers, administrators, counselors and parents. Whether a form meeting such as the PTA or an informal breakfast session, it is essential to provide a venue where parents and students can ask questions dealing with safety or to report unsafe activities. An anonymous system for parents and student to report tips, such as a telephone hot line or a mailbox, is also an excellent idea.
Involve local businesses to become involved in your school. Work with businesses in the area to create partnerships that will help your school gain the necessary recourses to promote safety in you school. Encourage business leaders or owners to donate equipment or supplies, volunteer services such as transportation or training, or cash to purchase materials or staff for safety programs. Depending on the business, it might be possible for them to donate incentives for students and teachers that assist in the programs.
Start a mentoring program. At-risk students, whether potential victim or perpetrator, can be paired with community mentors who can spend time with students. The group of mentors should be diverse and representative of the community. They can be business leaders, clergy, law enforcement officers, politicians or others who will be able to discuss various issues and offer support. Keep in mind that the mentoring program should be something that students elect to do, not something in which they are forced to participate.
Keep the community informed about the positive things going on in the schools. All too often, people in the community only hear about the bad things going on in schools. The only access to information is most often the local paper of the television or radio news that reports how children are failing or a tragic event. People who are not directly involved often carry a negative image of the school, personnel and students and this image makes positive change difficult. Teachers and students become discouraged and lose the incentive to continue the hard work. Get to know the reporters responsible for covering your school and make sure the media is aware of the good things going on. Add them to the mailing list for your school newsletters and meet with them whenever possible. Invite them to attend events and ask them to support your efforts by promoting the events and featuring students who have hit academic or personal milestones.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System.” Atlanta: 1998.
University of Michigan, Institute of Social Research. “Monitoring the Future.” Ann Arbor, MI: 1998.
U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. “National Crime Victimization Survey.” Washington, D.C.: 1999.