Voices in Education

Being Safe in School: Lessons Learned
Educators around the world generally appreciate that feeling and being safe in K12 schools is one of the essential foundations for learning and healthy development. It is only within the last forty years and, in some countries, only within the last several years that educators have recognized that the social and emotional aspects of feeling safe in school are as important as being physically safe. In fact, for a wide range of reasons, too many children and educators in the US and around the world do not feel safe at school. Although we tend to focus on the dangers of school shootings and bullying, there is a much wider spectrum of experiences that undermines K–12 students’ feelings and perceptions of safety at school. This spectrum ranges from misunderstandings, conflict, and microaggressions, to intentional verbal and/or cyber acts of being mean, cruel, and demeaning, to sexual harassment, sexual violence, and even more severe forms of violence, including shootings, homicide, and suicide. 1

School violence is, unfortunately, common. Today, in the US there is a primary focus on the following three forms of youth and/or school violence: (1) bullying, (2) weapons in school, and (3) school shootings.

Based on our learning and engagement in research, policy, and practice around the world, as well as our conversations with a number of the world’s leading school safety experts, we suggest that school leaders need to consider the following organizing ideas to create a safer school environment:

Effective school violence prevention: Effective school violence prevention efforts need to rest on universal efforts to promote health/mental health/social-emotional-civic competences, both individually and systemically. Just as health is more than the absence of illness, feeling safe is more than the absence of the range of experiences that undermine feeling and being safe. Such competence efforts include:
  • Fostering the social, emotional, and academic development (SEAD) of students as well as K–12 school personnel and parents.
  • School-wide efforts designed to foster safer, more supportive and equitable, as well as engaging climates for learning.
  • Disciplinary and classroom management practices that focus on learning rather than punishment.
  • Fostering healthy and connected relationships.
There are a range of school and district improvement goals that will support universal, research-based school safety informed efforts in the following three spheres: Systemically, instructionally, and relationally. 2
  1. Systemic improvement goals:
    • Policy review and reform—ensuring that policy is informed by current research. Today, there are way too many relevant policies (e.g., school safety; disciplinary; bully prevention; school improvement) that are not aligned with current research-based understandings and recommendations.
    • Collaboratively develop—among students, parents, and school personnel—a shared vision or portrait of a graduate, based on some foundational questions about the school community: What kind of school do we want ours to be?” “What are the essential skills, knowledge, and dispositions that we want all of our students to know and be able to do when they graduate from high school?”
    • Utilizing prosocial measurement systems (e.g., school climate surveys) in conjunction with traditional academic and behavioral measures).
    • Leadership development for students as well as educators.
    • Supporting intergenerational school improvement efforts.
    • Furthering meaningful school/family/community partnerships.
  2. Instructional improvement goals that support social, emotional, and academic development (SEAD):
    • Adults—particularly educators and parents—being helpful living examples/role models.
    • Disciplinary practice and management focused on learning rather than punishment.
    • Pedagogic strategies (from conflict resolution and cooperative learning to moral dilemma discussions and more) that support SEAD.
    • SEAD curriculum that is evidenced-based and utilizes a backwards design model that supports the inclusion of prosocial learning goals, strategies, and measures into existing language arts, social studies/history, and athletic courses. A “backward design model” of curriculum development supports teachers to “layer” or integrate prosocial learning objectives into language arts, social studies, history and other subject areas, determining acceptable evidence of learning, and develop learning activities that will help them to actualize all of their learning objectives.
  3. Relational improvement efforts:
    • Fostering healthy, connected, responsible, and caring relationships between educators and students, students and other students, and educators and other educators.
    • Fostering effective educator/mental health professional/parent partnerships
​• Weapons in schools: Paradoxically, schools are one of the physically safest places for children to be. However, there is understandable and significant anxiety about weapons in schools. The following policies and related practices have the potential to anticipate and address such concerns: 3
  1. Policies concerning weapons and safety should have a wide scope (e.g., all types of weapons; beyond fatal shootings; pertain to all members of the school community);
  2. Policies should incorporate a public health prevention approach (e.g., universal approach aimed at prevention weapons in all schools) that targets schools with high levels of weapon-related behaviors;
  3. Policies should promote safe, supportive, and equitable climates in schools as well as in extra-curricular activities.
Preventing school shootings: Today, we know that the most promising means of preventing school shootings is through the use of behavioral threat assessment and intervention teams. Threat assessments are designed to help schools channel assistance to students with unresolved grievances or other mental health needs, without overreacting to threats that are not serious. However, too often school leaders today are not focused on behavioral threat assessment and intervention teams.

Despite the many promising means of preventing school shootings, sadly, and counterproductively, too many school districts and states are working to prevent school shootings by investing millions of dollars in building security systems and/or “getting tough” with students. However, research has underscored that punitive methods of discipline make matters worse. Many empirical studies have confirmed that physical security measures are not linked to increased safety; rather, they increase student fear and anxiety.

In conclusion, schools in the US are one of the safest places for children and adolescents to be physically. However, this is not true emotionally or psychosocially. In fact, many school climate surveys find that while educators and parents report that their students and children feel “very safe” in schools, students typically report feeling “severely unsafe.” Appreciating the spectrum of experiences that undermines students feeling and being safe in school, as well as creating a relationship approach to school safety, will improve communication and deter future acts of school violence. Attention needs turn from a sole focus on security measures to understanding and promoting positive and supportive relations among students, teachers, administrators, and families, such that school safety becomes a community challenge to address.

1 Jonathan Cohen and Dorothy Espelage, Eds., Feeling Safe in School: Bullying and Violence Prevention Around the World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2020).
2 National School Climate Council, “School Climate and Pro-social Educational Improvement:  Essential Goals and Processes that Support Student Success for All,” Teachers College Record (May 2015).
3 Ron A. Astor and Rami Benbenishty, “Reducing Weapons in Schools: A Research Brief for Policy Makers,” American Psychological Association Division 15 Policy Brief Series 1, no. 1 (February 2019):  https://apadiv15.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Reducing-Weapons-in-Schools-1.pdf.

About the Author: Jonathan Cohen, Ph.D. is the co-president of the International Observatory for School Climate and Violence Prevention, adjunct professor in psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a practicing clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst. Dorothy L. Espelage, Ph.D. is a William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They are the co-editors of Feeling Safe in Schools: Bullying and Violence Prevention Around the World (Harvard Educational Press, 2020).