School shouldn’t be scary for kids. Here’s how you can help.
I was in high school on April 20, 1999, when the shooting at Columbine happened. Columbine was a school similar to the high school I was attending. The same demographic, suburban, with a similar student body population. In the days that followed I remember being afraid to go to school. My heart leaped in my throat when a pair of boys walked down the hall in trench coats. For a while, school, which had always been a safe space, didn’t feel safe anymore.
Since Columbine, hundreds of more school shootings have taken place. In fact, according to the Washington Post, since Columbine around 215,000 children have been exposed to gun violence in schools. Given the frequency of school shootings and other forms of violence, many children (and teachers) don’t feel safe at school. When kids feel safe at school they can learn. When they don’t feel safe they can’t. What can we do as teachers and schools to help make our schools safe and help our students feel safe at school?
Schools must take steps to make schools as safe as possible for kids. There is a lot of debate among lawmakers and citizens on how to do this, but there are some clear-cut ways to help make schools safer.
School Safety Plan: Every school needs to have a plan in place. All staff should be trained on it and students should be too. Just like fire drills, schools should have drills for active shooters or other dangerous situations.
Brainstorm Changes: Think about procedures such as how students enter in the morning or when they are late to school. Keep in mind the number of entrances and exits in the school. Are they accessible entrances? Also, keep lockdown procedures in mind when planning classroom layout.
Reporting: Have a reporting policy for parents, students, staff and community members. Encourage students to report anything they see or hear from classmates that may be suspicious.
With a 24-hour news cycle that covers every detail of school shootings and other violent events, school may start to feel unsafe to kids. Many students may feel anxious about school and be afraid that something might happen to them.
Teach the Statistics: According to the Washington Post “The statistical likelihood of any given public school student being killed by a gun, in school, on any given day since 1999 was roughly 1 in 614,000,000.” Older children can understand the hard numbers which may put their mind at rest. If they’ve watched news coverage of a violent event the images of family members crying can be hard to forget but teach them that only things that are rare make it onto the news. When was the last time you saw a news anchor interview a child after a routine day at school?
Challenge Anxious Thoughts: Teach kids to challenge the thoughts that come along with their anxious feelings. For example,
students can learn to replace a thought such as ‘I don’t feel safe at school’ with ‘My teachers care about me and everyone works hard to keep me safe.’
Focus on What You Can Control: Teach kids to focus on what they can control. A lack of control is often at the root of anxious feelings in these types of events. You can teach kids that they have options when responding to conflict, or even aggressive feelings of their own. Use the BeCool series to teach kids to respond to anger, teasing, bullying and more to prevent such situations from escalating to extremes.
Teach kids what to do to keep themselves safe in a dangerous situation. Focus on prevention, such as being a good friend to everyone since most shootings are perpetrated by disgruntled students.
Be Honest: It’s important not to dismiss or sugarcoat students’ concerns. Even though hearing endless news reports isn’t good for kids, they are likely hearing details about violent events from their friends or on the evening news at home. Address students’ questions and if you don’t know an answer, be honest about that too. It’s also important not to make promises such as ‘That could never happen here.’
Build Relationships with Kids: Students need to feel comfortable coming to a trusted adult if they hear something suspicious. Be approachable and encourage your students to talk to you if they have any concerns.
Having just one adult they feel safe with can make a huge difference.
Educate and Involve Parents: Parents may see that their children are afraid to come to school but may not know how to address it. Some parents keep their kids home, which only makes anxiety worse. Give parents a voice and include them in school safety planning. Send home information on how parents can effectively talk to their children about difficult topics.
Empower Students: Give students the opportunity to have a voice. Let kids be on committees and give ideas for how to make school a safe space.
School can be a safe place and is for most. Some students, however, may struggle socially or with other outside factors that make the school day more of a burden. All of your students can benefit from self-advocacy lessons and reassurance that they are in control. Always be aware of your settings, and be prepared to help students who may come to you as a trusted adult or need a reprieve from the trials of their day.
By: Amy Curletto
Amy has been teaching for 12 years in grades K-2. She has a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education and also has endorsements in reading and ESL. Besides education, her other passion is writing and she has always dreamed of being a writer. She lives in Utah with her husband, her 3 daughters, and her miniature schnauzer. She enjoys reading, knitting, and camping.
The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.
Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.