Sean Slade

Improving Schools: School Safety

This month we are focusing on school safety, where the initial thought is to discuss physical safety as a reaction to the Sandy Hook tragedy. Yet, in looking back over the articles written recently, there is less about physical safety and more about positive school climate, supportive environments, open doors, and inviting the community into schools.

Sam Chaltain: "There is, however, something essential our schools can do to ensure that all children feel safe and supported, and it, too, is something the educators of Sandy Hook were already doing: proactively addressing the full range of each child's developmental needs, and providing students with the love and support they need to learn and grow."

Peter DeWitt: "Educators understand that children learn better in a positive and inclusive school climate. ... If an unsafe school means that students cannot learn, then we must acknowledge that when a student is afraid of a teacher, or a teacher is afraid of a principal, the school climate suffers."

Sean Slade: "Research suggests that increasing connections, enhancing relationships, and building bridges strengthen communities and provides a safety net. Frequently when it is most difficult to invite colleagues and community into your schools and classrooms, it's the time it is most needed."

Stephen Sroka: "Safe and healthy students learn more and live better. We may need more metal detectors, but we must have more mental detectors. We need to focus on mental health services to help prevent violence in and out of schools. We need more school counselors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, and resource officers or we will leave more children behind in school and life."

The same thoughts came out in our podcast this month with Joseph Bergant II, superintendent of Chardon Schools in Ohio; Howard Adelman, professor of psychology at UCLA and the Center for Mental Health in Schools; and Jonathan Cohen, president and cofounder of the National School Climate Center.

The truth is that every school has a climate—it will be adopted by default or it will be planned and promoted.

It is no coincidence that ASCD's School Improvement Tool—which uses the Whole Child Tenets and their indicators—are crossreferenced to the six components for effective school improvement, the first of which is school climate and culture. When it's effective, schools with a positive school climate and culture have students who enter school feeling safe, engaged, and connected and see school as a place where they can learn and contribute to the world around them. They receive coordinated and continuous support to strengthen their social and emotional skills and enhance positive character traits.

These components are taken from school improvement research showcase the role and foundational need for all of us to be aware of and proactive to improving school climate. The truth is that a school's climate affects all aspects of the school and its activities, whether that be students feeling safe and supported, effective in teaching and learning, and engaging the local community.

A few years back, I was in a school talking with a principal whose school had the highest level of connectedness (caring relationships, meaningful participation, and high expectations) of any school in the district. On hearing this, the friendly, jovial principal said, "That's great, but I have no idea how we are doing that." This is what I told him:

"As I walked from my car to your office, I walked past teachers, parents, and classrooms. Every teacher looked me in the eye and said hello, every parent acknowledged me and nodded, and every classroom door was open and was noisy—not noisy from shouting but also not quiet and silent. Rather, it was typical kid noise: discussion, chatter, laughter, and often half a dozen conversations going on at the same time. Every hallway had the kids work up and present. Outside the school there was a banner declaring this Sunday was the Parent-Teacher Picnic. On arriving at your office, you greeted me, smiling. As we walked around the school, you kept up a conversation with me but also were able to greet and answer random questions from a range of kids whose name you knew."

Want to start making your school safer from today? Work on the things that this principal did everyday—so much so that he and his community weren't even aware that they were doing it—and make it part of the school's DNA.

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