School board members and administrative leaders long have emphasized and prioritized the physical safety of each child, employee, and visitor to their school building. Each safety procedure, set by school boards and superintendents, is put in place after identifying and carefully considering the various types of potential safety threats in their communities. In our current climate, however, school safety and security must encompass much more than physical safety concerns.
The National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments defines school safety as schools and school-related activities where students are safe from violence, bullying, harassment, and substance use. The closing of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic revealed that many schoolchildren across the country face inequities and struggle with basic needs such as inadequate internet access, housing uncertainty, poor health care, and food insecurity. School boards and administrative leaders have shifted their focus to address the challenges presented by these needs and differences in students’ home environments.
Considerations of family situations, space, and basic needs have caused us to think about community and family engagement efforts more deliberately. They have spurred us to find more opportunities to include families, nonprofit organizations, and community-based organizations to help meet the “whole” student’s needs. All students have the potential to learn. It’s a matter of personalizing the learning experience and providing the right supports to meet their individual needs.
Loss of learning opportunities, we learned, vary across income groups, communities, and neighborhoods. Often the most challenging concerns are about experiences leading to trauma and the resulting mental health strain. Incidents of racial injustice and political turmoil have been experienced by students and staff both directly and indirectly. These factors and experiences have impacted students’ well-being and academic performance.
Innovative and transformative initiatives such as extending learning time after school, on weekends, or during the summer have helped close the gaps. Teachers play a huge role in students’ development and provide so much more than academic instruction. We need to make sure they are supported and provided with the training and professional development needed to help serve and support their students.
It is also especially important that we continue to take the steps to deeply understand students, their families, and their communities and work to meet them where they are. That includes continuing to expand our focus on students’ physical safety needs and include their mental health needs and social and emotional well-being so that their learning environment remains safe and nurturing.
I know firsthand that school board members are under tremendous pressure and are making extremely difficult decisions. They are making these decisions by consulting with health experts, reviewing state and local data, and listening to their community members.
School board members have learned that school safety policies promote increased learning. Broadening our understanding of school safety to include social-emotional aspects of student development and achievement can help build students’ feelings of security. This security helps them build stronger connections with their schools, attain higher levels of positive social behavior and decreased levels of school environment trauma and violence. That really is at the core of education.