Sean Slade

Safer Schools for Living, Growing, and Learning

Often when people talk about the basics of education, they refer to the three Rs: reading, (w)riting, and (a)rithmetic. However, an even more foundational aspect to educating students is ensuring that schools are safe.

If a school isn't a safe place, then it can't be a school as we know it—a place to learn and grow. If a school isn't a safe place, it becomes reactive to incidents, and teaching and learning become a secondary or forgotten imperative.

And it's not just actual safety that's crucial, but perceived safety. An unsafe school climate increases truancy, reduces classroom engagement, demands inattention, and negatively affects both teaching and learning. The school's climate—safe or unsafe, supportive or unsupportive, welcoming or confrontational—dictates how, where, and if learning occurs.

A positive school climate isn't just a safety or well-being issue, it's also a teaching and learning issue. A school climate that is healthy and safe, where the students are engaged, and their growth and development is supported, is the environment that is most conducive to effective teaching and learning, and allows students to be challenged cognitively. One requires the other and, as such, are symbiotic. The best teaching, curricula, and programming won't make up for an environment where the kids or adults are unhealthy or unsafe.

Over the past couple of years, we have become more aware of the tragic consequences of unsafe environments—whether through the award-winning film Bully by Lee Hirsch, the anti-bullying efforts of the White House, or the recent tragic events in Newtown, Conn. These cases exemplify how fundamentally an unsafe environment can affect what goes on in a school.

And it hardly needs to be stated that these and other incidents affect the how a school can (and should) operate. But how does an everyday poor school climate affect teaching and learning? And are there things that educators can do to improve the climate and safety at our schools? Research suggests that increasing connections, enhancing relationships, and building bridges strengthen communities and provides a safety net. Frequently, when it is most difficult to invite colleagues and community into your schools and classrooms, it's the time it is most needed. Philip Rodkin, an associate professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, describes the classroom as a community where we learn pro- (and anti-) social behavior but also one that supports or subtracts from youth development and learning through the sense of safety that the environment exudes. The actions of teachers, even at this micro level, can help develop a safe, nurturing environment. Get the majority of adults at a school to be proactive about a positive school climate and it starts to become the norm.

Can we go deeper with this discussion? Is there a point when the physical safety requirements start to impede the teaching and learning environment? Does a metal detector or a barbed-wire fence add to or detract from the overall well-being of the school? There may well be times when such tools are required to ensure not only a safe environment, but also a sense of safety across the school. When and where do these tools become deficits and restrict the learning environment or cause undue alarm? Although a foundation of safety is a necessity, is there a tipping point when we start to lose what's crucial for teaching and learning?

These questions can be answered only when we appreciate the symbiotic relationship among safety, climate, and learning.

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