Building a Safer, Thriving School through the Inside-Out Approach

October 24 2013


We all want schools to be safe and thriving places where students can excel, staff are inspired and parents are comforted in knowing that their children are in safe and nurturing environments. Unfortunately, as we hear on the news too often, many schools have become places where violence and mistreatment is the norm. School successes are secondary to school safety, teachers are suffering from burn out, parents are distrustful of schools, and students are subjected to the norm of “cruel is cool”.

So what can be done about this toxic school bullying virus? How do we protect our children, staff and communities from the violence and mistreatment?

Some feel that the solution comes in the form of increased security, what we call the “outside-in approach”. This approach focuses on the power and authority of adults to keep school safe. This approach places primary importance on controlling student behavior through measures like security personnel, cameras, metal detectors and zero tolerance rules and policies. Unfortunately, this approach is expensive and does not address the behaviors, biases and bigotry that are often the root cause of the problem that is leading to the “cruel is cool” norm.

Instead, we believe, and research supports our belief, that safety is achieved when there is a balance of school security with positive school climate. Instead of solely focusing on the “Outside-In Approach”, we need to cultivate a positive school climate, where the focus is on positive relationships, the relationships among and between students and staff, as well as administration and parents. In this environment young people are empowered to be part of the problem solving and decision-making, and schools use formative and restorative policies to address problem behaviors.

We call this an “Inside-Out Approach”, where emphasis is on creating positive school norm change, and the change is created by those that are “inside”, those that have the power to change the norms, those that are impacted by the culture, our students. Using an “Inside-Out Approach”, students become Upstanders who are not willing to stand by and watch mistreatment. Instead, they become the solution. They begin a change that will shift the norm of cruel to a norm of kindness.

By focusing on changing norms, we are treating the virus, not punishing the symptoms, because you cannot legislate kindness and empathy. By engaging students, we are empowering those that see mistreatment to stand up and do the right thing.

“What can I do?” you may ask. Here are three simple strategies for making a small ripple that can become a wave of change at your school:

  1. Start a school safety and climate committee. Make sure to include a variety of stakeholders and focus on the needs of all children and staff, not just the aggressors, not just the targets, but all children on campus.
  2. Investigate restorative practices that can be adopted in your school’s practices, activities and policies.
  3. Empower student with training and tools, such as our Safe School Ambassadors Program, to help move students from bystanders to Upstanders and ultimately change the campus climate.

So let’s get started. Our children are waiting for us. They are waiting for us to give them guidance and tools. They are waiting on our invitation and support to be Upstanders. And the best place to begin this change is at our schools.

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