Our mission, our focus, our commitment is to the safety of schools nationwide. In addition to the primary, middle and secondary-level schools we support, it’s important to also consider non-traditional and private educational situations. After-school programs, preschools, and religious classes all share similar challenges in protecting the safety and security of the students, teachers and staff.
If this isn’t evident to you, then certainly the recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centers makes that crystal clear. While threats to date were not carried out, they are serious and harm the sense of security and safety our children feel in these educational environments. Dr. Melissa Reeves, president of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), says racism, discrimination, and prejudices harm students and their families. It can have a profoundly negative effect on school climate, a sense of physical and psychological safety, school achievement, social-emotional growth, and self-efficacy, according to Reeves.
“As school leaders and educators, it is imperative that we establish a climate of acceptance, facilitate positive discussions focused on understanding and celebrating differences, and help develop a future generation of citizens who make the conscious choice to focus on collaboration and cooperation, not divisiveness,” said Reeves. “Students, staff, teachers, and parents must feel safe at our schools and in our communities in order for learning to occur.”
Unfortunately, because they are not in a traditional “public school setting,” these other educational programs might not feel as connected to the important network of local safety experts.
We would be remiss if we didn’t offer some suggestions to help communities address the impact these threats have on our students in both traditional and non-traditional educational settings.
1. In December, we published a blog post that offers five suggestions to help ease concerns students may have about current events. These include making time for discussion, encouraging kindness, compassion and inclusiveness, teaching acceptance, being vocal, and seeking help. You can refer back to this post for more details, but these suggestions are absolutely relevant in this case, too, and may help remove some anxiety students might feel.
2. To help strengthen the safety network, broaden your partnerships to include local law enforcement. Sure, police departments play an important role in keeping communities safe as a whole, but they are also a positive force able to help keep schools safe. Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, says law enforcement can work with educators to collaborate on safe school crisis training, purposeful use of technology, and effective use of interagency partners. The organization’s comprehensive report, To Protect and Educate: The School Resource Officer and the Prevention of Violence in Schools, offers reference points school policymakers can use as they assess and plan to strengthen their safety.
3. Just as these situations have targeted religious institutions, we, too, can target our local religious organizations to remind them of the free resources and tools Safe and Sound Schools offers. The Straight-A Safety Improvement model works just as well for a synagogue, church, community center or mosque as they do for a traditional K-12 school. If you are part of a religious organization, please share our Assess, Act and Audit tools with your clergy or community leaders.
4. Finally, when talking with our children about any event that singles out a group of people, it is important to foster empathy. We talked with Rabbi Lisa Eiduson from a Jewish congregation in Massachusetts to get her perspective on these threats. She pointed to the idea that anyone targeted, whether bullied at school or receiving a threat, can feel like an outsider.
“When we look around and speak to people outside of our small community, we realize that we are in the company of many people and groups that likewise suffer from feelings of ‘being othered,’” Eiduson said. “Whether it is religion, skin color, nationality, sexual preference, physical or mental disability – even philosophical world-view – it is sobering to look beyond ourselves and see that there are many in our midst who also feel a bit like strangers in a strange land.”
We should talk to our students about this feeling of “otherness,” and by sharing this notion, we can come together and unify. Rabbi Eiduson says when we talk about this concept, we can pay closer attention to those who may feel pushed aside, listen to their stories with greater empathy, and “take action to strengthen ourselves so that we can strengthen others.”
Now more than ever, we need to come together to ensure the safety – emotional and physical – of our children. Threats are scary, real and harmful, but they don’t have to be the end of the story. From one-on-one talks to broader community conversations and partnerships, schools of all types have several tools available to help in the process. Let’s connect and work together to ensure community centers, after-school programs, pre-schools and other non-traditional learning environments are just as safe and secure as any other public or private school.
Michele Gay, Co-founder and Executive Director of Safe and Sound Schools
Mo Canady, Executive Director, National Association of School Resource Officers
Rabbi Lisa Eiduson, Massachusetts
Dr. Melissa Reeves, PhD
CJ Huff, Former Superintendent of the Joplin, MO Schools, shares Part 2 of his blog series on building relationships in the school community, focused on reaching outside the school to strengthen our schools. Click here to review part 1.
Over the past 20 years I have had the opportunity to work with community partners in a variety of capacities. I have also learned that among school districts, buildings, and classrooms, school/community partnerships range from open door to appointment only. No question–there has to be a balance–but I believe it is important to err on the side of inclusiveness whenever possible.
Schools give many reasons for keeping the community at arms length. Security, fear the school day will be disrupted, legal liability, and concerns about confidentiality are often at the top of the list. Each of these issues is legitimate, but not insurmountable. Developing well-defined parameters for community involvement are important. But it is also important to keep in mind that there are many wonderful people in your community wanting to help, if given the opportunity.
A mistake schools often make is asking for support (usually financial) only when we need it. There have been few times in my career that a local business or organization didn’t step up and help during those times. However, the message we are sending can easily be interpreted as, “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.”
There are many benefits of engaging the community in the schools. At a site level, new resources are brought to the table. When parents, educators, businesses, human service agencies, and churches (Yes…they can be involved too AND it is legal.) sit down together at the same table to talk about kids, good things happen. A few thoughts to consider…
- The Sleeping Giant: Faith-based organizations are mission driven and full of individuals who are seeking ways to give back to the community. Does this mean they will be preaching to the kids at school. No. That isn’t legal. But as a local minister in Joplin put it, “We know we can’t be the voice of God in our schools, but we can be the hands and feet of God by supporting our children and educators.” I often refer to faith communities as “The Sleeping Giant.” When given the opportunity they will respond quickly to the needs of the school. No questions asked.
- Treasure: I learned quickly that treasure doesn’t necessarily mean monetary resources. In fact, some of the best “treasures” that have been brought to the table are not monetary. Volunteers knitting stocking caps for needy kids in preparation for the winter, organizations donating school supplies, service organizations taking on special projects – the list goes on. The point is that there are many giving hearts in your community with treasures to offer. Although it doesn’t look like cash, these treasures are priceless.
- Advocacy: Community complacency towards our schools has come about as a result of decades of schools pulling down the blinds and shutting the doors. Unfortunately, when our doors are closed and our windows are covered, others can’t see the good things happening in our schools, or spot challenges and potential solutions. I would ask you to think on this for a second. How might the tides turn if members of your community could see—and be a part of–the good work in your schools? What would happen if in your community you had dozens or even hundreds of volunteers working in different capacities supporting your children and the good work of educators?
Ultimately the purpose of opening the doors of our schools is to move our communities from complacency to action and from action to advocacy. In this era of limited resources and high accountability, I’d encourage educators and school leaders to take that first step and open the doors…even if it is just a crack. You might be surprised to find who is waiting for you on the other side of the door ready to help.
CJ Huff is the retired superintendent of Joplin Schools in Joplin, MO. He is recognized nationally in the field of community engagement and 21st century education programming.
October 2016 is a special month and year, as it marks the 10th anniversary of National Bullying Prevention Month. We have seen a lot of progress in bullying prevention over these past 10 years, including the launch of stopbullying.gov (a federal government website dedicated to this topic) and the passing of anti-bullying legislation in all 50 states. On a personal level, 5 years ago I was honored to become the director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo, a center with the mission of conducting research to better understand and prevent bullying and getting that information into the hands of people who can make a difference.
What do we know about bullying?
- Bullying is intentional aggression that can cause harm to the person being bullied. It involves a power difference (due to physical size, social status, race/ethnicity, and many other things) between the person bullying and the person being bullied. It usually happens over and over, as opposed to a one-time event.
- Bullying can be physical (hitting, kicking), verbal (mean teasing, threats), indirect (spreading rumors, excluding), or cyber (through computers, cell phones, or other electronic devices)
- About 1 in 3 children and adolescents are involved in bullying as a bully, a target, or both. Most of the time adults do not see it happening, kids do not tell it is happening, and peers see or hear it but do not try to stop it.
- Bullying can be very distressing to all involved. The target of bullying can experience anxiety, depression, school avoidance, loneliness, suicidal thoughts, and low self-esteem. Students who bully may be involved in other risk behaviors (fighting, drug and alcohol use) and are more likely to have legal, criminal, and relationship problems as adults. Bystanders who see bullying happen also experience anxiety.
What can we do to help stop bullying?
- Live the golden rule by treating others with the kindness with which you would like to be treated. We do not know what battles other people are facing or struggles they are having, so treating each person with dignity, respect, and kindness is the best way to prevent bullying.
- Find ways to cope with frustration, anger, and other normal feelings that may make us want to hurt others. Some people talk to a friend, others write in a journal, and others work it off through physical exercise. Stopping to think and pausing to post before are good ways to prevent saying something that may hurt something else.
- If you are being bullied, know that it is not your fault and you should not be treated this way. You have options, such as leaving the situation, being assertive that this is not OK, reporting it to a trusted adult, and surrounding yourself with safe people.
- If you see someone else being bullied, don’t join in. Speak up if it is safe to do so. Sometimes this is hard to do alone, so it helps to band together as a group to say it is not OK. Reach out and let the person being bullied know they are not alone. Report the incident – it is not ratting or tattling (this is what we do when we are trying to get someone in trouble), but it is reporting or telling, which is what to do when someone’s behavior is unsafe.
If each person does their part, it makes it easier for schools, parents, and communities join together in these common goals to create a culture and climate of support where bullying is not tolerated. I hope in another 10 years we won’t need a Bullying Prevention Month because every day will be a day where we are committed to treating others with dignity and respect.
To learn more, please check out some of these resources:
Dr. Amanda Nickerson is a professor of school psychology and director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York. She is a licensed psychologist, a nationally certified school psychologist, and a speaker for Safe and Sound Schools.