This is an opinion piece written by Cindy Wilson, a candidate for Idaho superintendent of public instruction.
About 10 years ago, I started beginning my school year watching safety videos before the first day of class. It’s part of a teacher’s preparation for the year, along with lesson planning and syllabus preparation.
I’ll never forget the first time I watched a video that included a new role for teachers. Prepared by the police department, it showed a teacher doing everything she could to protect her students from an attacker – she quickly led them outside and they all ran to safety. I felt sick to my stomach. I knew the responsibility I had to protect “my kids,” the students in my classroom, should the unthinkable ever happen at my school.
Years later, I’m now a bit more comfortable with what I’m watching, but it is still frightening. The responsibility that teachers feel to ensure their students’ safety weighs heavily on their minds.
School safety should not be taken lightly – and it hasn’t been in Idaho. It’s a serious matter that affects all educators, students, parents, and everyone in the community, which makes it especially important to manage our resources wisely. If we approach school safety like we are reinventing the wheel, then we will surely see redundancies, short-sighted spending, and miscommunication – or worse, no communication at all – with key stakeholders.
Two of those important stakeholders can offer a wealth of knowledge and expertise about school safety. First is Idaho’s Office of School Safety and Security, created in 2016 to assist school districts in ensuring student safety precautions. Second is our local public safety officials from the county sheriff’s department or the city police department, who are well-trained to confront violent threats. These groups are also well aware of the needs of each community and how they should customize their responses. Any plan that is considered for Idaho must include a partnership of these two areas, as well as those who are most closely involved with the students – teachers and administrators, which of course would include groups like the Idaho School Boards Association, the Idaho Association of School Administrators, and the Idaho Education Association.
But most importantly, in addition to ensuring we have safe buildings and prepared responders, we need to focus on the reason behind the violence. Violence in schools is a symptom of what’s happening with our young people today: feelings of isolation, depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, and mental illness generally. Many have had traumatic experiences in their young lives, which can affect their mental health.
No measure of school safety will be complete without addressing these student needs. And how do we do that? Schools must create a culture of community where everyone is nurtured, where individual needs are met so students can feel successful and learn how to communicate with one another in a civil way. Students should have access to highly trained counselors, and families should know that expert help is available from partners who care about their kids. Children should be taught to care for one another and feel empowered to act on these lessons. And of course, they should learn to notify adults whenever they see something out of sorts or when they have concerns for a classmates’ well-being.
Adding the civic dispositions of kindness, respect for one another’s differences, respect for the law, compassion, honesty, courage, negotiation and compromise to the culture of a classroom, school, and district can help eliminate early signs of bullying, and yes, even help protect students from violence at school.
But it takes everyone working together, everyone on the same page, and everyone having the same goal in mind: protect our children.
As this new school year begins, let’s all make a pledge to work as partners in ensuring our students’ safety and healthy development. We must focus on the root causes of school violence and not just cover it with a bandage. After all, Idaho’s public schools are not just about securing the fort during the school day; they are also about partnering with communities to coach our kids into lives of meaning, respect and dignity.