School Safety Is About Creating Meaningful Relationships
One recurring theme throughout last month’s National Summit on School Safety was the importance of building relationships among community stakeholders.
Later in the afternoon, another panel featuring national experts in safety technology and practitioners from the field discussed available tools and technology for safer schools.
Dr. Catherine Finger, a former superintendent, summed up school safety in three words: relationships, culture and community.
When her district was building a new high school, many concerned parents wanted to implement safety measures while also making sure they wouldn’t lose “the love” they felt in the schools. They wanted to ensure their children did not feel like they were walking into a prison.
“As a high school superintendent, my goal was for every single one of my students [and] families to walk into their home. Our school was their home,” she said. “What does protection look like, feel like, act like within a home? What would a sense of peace, safety and home look like in a school?”
With that question in mind, she created a community forum consisting of students, parents, police and fire, among others.
“Bring them in. Learn from them as everyone has a different perspective on school safety and bridge relationships with all community stakeholders,” she concluded.
28-Year Law Enforcement Veteran: We Must Teach Empathy
At the summit, I had the opportunity to speak with Safe2Tell founder Susan Payne — who has also been a D.A.R.E. officer and an SRO in her 28-year law enforcement career — about the importance of creating an open dialogue between students and staff.
“I learned that bridging relationships with young people was critical to the success of any school,” she said. “I remember being a D.A.R.E. officer and they said, ‘You can’t come in too nice.’ You get a lot of different training in your career, but I think there is certainly more of an effort [to] build relationships with our students, and when we can know that they are safe in school and happy and healthy, then it is about that, as well as academic achievement. Those that are in that space of feeling safe are going to achieve at a higher level. It goes hand in hand.”
Susan also touched on the importance of ensuring students have open communication amongst each other. She referenced a viral YouTube video where a Texas teacher assigns a student greeter each day to say, ‘Good morning’ and to offer a hug, a high-five or a simple handshake to each of their peers as they enter the classroom. The teacher said she does it to teach good manners and to show that “someone is on their side.”
“That’s what we want to see adults doing. We want them in the hallways, saying, ‘Hey, glad you’re in school, hope it’s going good,'” Susan said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re coming to the classroom as an A-student, a D-student, or you have officers there for safety. We want to engage them in building that culture. But we need to do that with children. Giving them the skills to interact with one another, communicate with one another, ask what’s going on in their life, show empathy.”
During the tools and technology panel discussion, an attendee asked, “If I have only $1 for school safety, what do I spend it on?”
Susan has one recommendation.
“In a staff meeting, have a list of all students and have staff put a dot next to every student you have a relationship with. If there are any names that don’t have a dot next to them, then you need to work on that over the next month and be able to put a dot on that name. It’s an interpersonal relationship skill and it’s just a little way to be observant as an educator, a teacher, a counselor. It doesn’t matter if you’re a custodian, a cafeteria worker or a bus driver. Everyone can be involved in engaging in the student population and making young people feel connected to adults.”
Columbine Principal Says Student Relationships Are What Kept Him Going
Former Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis closed out the summit alongside Patrick Ireland (who, fun fact, is now his financial advisor) in a powerful keynote. DeAngelis discussed the tragedy from his perspective and said what has helped him most in his recovery are the relationships he has created with his students.
“What broke my heart as an educator was when people were counting the number of days they had until they retired. And what I’m thinking in my mind is, ‘You know who suffers is the kids.’ I would be willing to bet that I could walk into any school here in Houston or in the larger Texas area, and within five minutes, I can tell which teachers enjoy what they are doing. It’s because of the relationships they have with kids. And those teachers, they don’t need attendance policies or tardy policies because those kids want to be in their class,” he said. “When people would ask me, ‘Are you counting the days?’ I really was, because I only have 15 more days with my kids. Then 10 more days with my kids. Then five more days.”
Whether it be through prevention, intervention, or recovery work, meaningful relationships are what drives a community. We can’t stop all bad things from happening. But for those of us involved in school safety, ensuring all community members feel they have a spot at the dining room table and access to necessary resources will make a meaningful difference.
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