The following column originally was published by ECM Publications
Helping students be safer at school
David Esquith shares one of the deepest concerns parents have: “I worry about a call from the school that my kid got hurt.” It’s important that Esquith understands, because he directs the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students.
On Jan. 22, he spoke at a meeting that drew hundreds of suburban, rural and urban Minnesota educators. He agreed with TV stories and newspaper headlines: School safety needs more attention in every community. I found some of his statistics stunning.
Esquith explained that his top current concerns are “middle schools, teachers being victimized, gangs, drugs and alcohol.”
He cited national statistics showing that in 2012-13, 25 percent of middle school students reported being bullied. He’s deeply concerned that 50 percent of these incidents were not reported to an adult. A key question for him is why these acts of bullying aren’t being reporting to adults. He also explained that unchecked, bullying can help lead to suicide. Sadly, suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 10-24.
Secondly, Esquith noted that in 2011-12, 10 percent of public school teachers reported being threatened by a student and 6 percent of public school teachers reported being physically attacked by a student in their school in past 12 months. He insisted, and I agree completely, “No teacher should go to school and be threatened.”
Finally, Esquith noted that 70 percent of discipline problems in schools come from 4-5 percent of the students. He explained that the easy answer with these students is “keep them out of school.” He added, “But it’s not a solution – we’ve made this someone else’s problem.”
Some teachers and schools working successfully with challenging students should be invited to speak at a future conference. Places like Ivan Sand Community High School in Elk River or charter Face to Face Academy in St. Paul can be great resources for others.
Many educators not only sat but also literally stood in the aisles to hear suggestions from Walter Roberts, a widely respected professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Roberts stressed the importance of each school developing a plan that is “preventive rather than reactionary.”
He suggested that parents ask: “Do students have access to school counselors, social workers, school psychologists, mental health specialists? Are there enough within the school or available through community partnerships so each student has someone (with whom) she/he can discuss personal and social issues?”
Roberts also stressed the importance of surveying students and families to determine if kids feel safe, if students want to go to school and if parents feel welcome. (I’ll write a separate column about a student survey that Minnesota schools are offering later this year.)
Participants also heard from Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius. She believes: “Recent events in our nation and world have contributed to an environment that may expose children to disturbing or hateful messages online, in the news, or in their everyday experiences, even at school. … We must be extra vigilant and work together to make sure all of our students feel safe and supported in our schools.”
Minnesota’s Legislature created a School Safety Technical Assistance Center, housed at MDE. Cassellius says the center helps schools and communities “by providing guidance and best practices for creating safe and supportive schools.” The center’s website has many suggestions for schools and families. It’s found here: http://bit.ly/1Q8vil3.
PACER Center, a statewide family and student assistance group that co-sponsored the conference, also has training programs and a website with information for families and students. That’s here: http://www.pacer.org/bullying.
Esquith noted that despite widely reported school shooting incidents, “students are safer in school than they’ve ever been.” But he stressed that with, for example, 25 percent of middle school students reporting being bullied and 10 percent of teachers reporting being threatened, there is “still lots of work to do.” I agree.
Wise families won’t wait. They’ll ask what local surveys show about how safe students feel in their schools – and what plans the school has to make it an even safer place.
Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is a former director and now senior fellow at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.