Creating Safe Schools Begins in the Classroom

by John Hudson

Unfortunately, school shootings and school safety are back in the news. Depending on your political bent, the solution is either hardening the target, more police, fences, locks, and arming teachers –  or more SEL focused programs, building relationships, restorative programs/practices, more counselors and more agency support.

My belief is that safety within schools should be intentional. It can and should be created and supported by every individual in the school community. One of the most significant safety threats is from disaffected, rejected, and bullied current and former students. What schools believe and how they treat everyone is key. Students who experience rejection and isolation from their peers, and indifference or shame from teachers and staff, may develop anger and hatred toward the institution and individuals. Staff who are isolated or feel unappreciated are often unable or unwilling to create caring, supportive relationships with their students because you cannot give what you don’t possess. This can lead to a toxic climate in classrooms and the school. Failure to capitalize on community resources to holistically support students, parents and teachers creates missed opportunities to address physical, mental, and emotional needs.

One of the most important investments a school or school district can make in their efforts to create a safe and caring environment for all students is to provide focused professional development to staff, in an effort to build their sense of efficacy as they transform their classroom into each student’s Home Court – a place where every student is supported, every individual wants and encourages others to do their best, supports them when they need help, and is celebrated when they are successful.

While serving as a district office supervisor of attendance, truancy, and dropout prevention in Waco, Texas, I first got a glimpse of the power of peers to support one another. As part of a comprehensive grant I authored to address a serious problem with the use of exclusionary discipline, I encountered the Community Matters program Safe School Ambassadors. The district adopted SSA as a way to improve the climate in their schools primarily by addressing student to student conflict and bullying.

I realized that creating support by students within a classroom could be a model for expanding support to all within a school community. But where to start? Clearly the answer is within each classroom. Before that can happen, teachers and staff need training, support and guidance. Providing ongoing professional development will, over time, build teachers’ and staff belief that their efforts can improve school climate and student learning. The Safe School Ambassadors Program provided an ideal model.

In my work with classroom teachers, I utilize an exercise that examines an individual’s personal theory of behavior and how that influences interactions with difficult students. We look at how to establish classroom norms collaboratively that allow discussion of how each individual wants to be treated. Modeling how to incorporate student voice and choice into daily activities, discussing the type of environment where students learn best and finally getting every individual to commit to working daily toward those goals is probably the most important aspect of teacher professional development. I also suggest one full session be dedicated to creating a clear understanding by teachers of the difference between punitive and restorative discipline. Finally, teachers need to understand that although problems or conflicts will still arise in the classroom, there can be a road map for resolution through the revisiting of norms and the existing agreements by all.

John Hudson has been an educator for forty five years. During that time he has served as the principal of seven high schools and one middle school in three states. Concerned with issues related to at risk youth for his entire career, he has consulted with school districts in eleven states on a wide variety of issues: Suicide Prevention & Intervention, Drug and Alcohol Abuse Prevention & Intervention, School Climate, School Safety and School Leadership. He has chaired the Governor’s Select Commission on Adolescent Suicide for Arizona; served as a member of the National Association of Secondary School Principals institute staff focused on issues relating to at risk and disaffected youth; served as Project Manager for the Texas High School Redesign and Restructuring Grant Program; served as Program Coordinator for the Texas Turnaround Leadership Academy and served as Supervisor of Attendance, Truancy, and Dropout Prevention and Recovery for the Waco Independent School District in Waco, Texas.

He has graduate and undergraduate degrees in education from Boston State College and a graduate degree in Organizational Leadership from Teachers College, Columbia University. Currently he is a consultant working with non-profits on initiatives to stem the School to Prison Pipeline, improve school safety and the design and implementation of Restorative Justice and practices into school policy and codes of conduct.