School leaders strive to make their schools safe. They are eager to try the latest programs and practices that promise great results. But not all programs and practices will work in every situation, and many times, even the most successful programs cannot sustain success. In order for their programs to have the best chance at long-term success, schools need to focus first on developing “organizational capacity,” or the buy-in, support, and resources needed to sustain programs over time.
A concrete safe schools or anti-bullying policy, which makes clear that schools are to be safe for all students, is critical to establishing a common understanding across a school’s community. Such policies should include a statement of enumeration – in which specific groups of individuals who tend to be at higher risk for being bullied or harassed are named. The statement of enumeration emphasizes that all students are covered under the policy regardless of their characteristics.
Communities with enumeration statements have shown overall better outcomes, including decreased drug and alcohol use, decreased reports of bullying, and decreased suicidal behaviors, particularly for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.
Sample Enumerated Policy: N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C-407.15(a) (2010): “Bullying or harassing behavior includes, but is not limited to, acts reasonably perceived as being motivated by any actual or perceived differentiating characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, socioeconomic status, academic status, gender identity, physical appearance, sexual orientation, or mental, physical, developmental, or sensory disability, or by association with a person who has or is perceived to have one or more of these characteristics.”
Read more about other key components of anti-bullying policies in this letter from the U.S. Department of Education.
Like a seat belt, a policy is not effective if it is not consistently engaged. Anti-bullying policies should be posted throughout a school,, regularly communicated to students and parents, and consistently enforced. School staff also should work to help students and other community members understand the importance of the policy and of its key components. Policies should be regularly reviewed by the community at large – school staff, students, and parents – to ensure that they match broader school safety efforts.
Support for creating and maintaining a safe school must start at the highest points of school leadership – the principal, vice principal and/or other administrators. Without leadership support, teachers often feel that they cannot make the necessary changes. Strong leadership that models and guides a vision of safe schools will help inspire the rest of the school community.
A successful safe school environment is much more likely to be achieved when a leadership team that includes the school’s administrators as well as representatives from across the school community is appointed to guide the formation of a plan and keep the school community accountable. A successful leadership team:
- Holds regular meetings to review progress and listen to the community
- Works to create buy-in from the school community
- Ensures that all voices of the school community are engaged
- Gathers information to understand school climate
- Seeks to access outside resources that help make the school safer
- Develops and adjusts school safety plans
Understanding the existing climate at a school is critical to identifying what challenges need to be addressed. Often, our casual observations of a school’s climate might give some clues, but may not detect more hidden problems. For instance, many teachers dramatically underestimate the rates of student-to-student bullying, especially hidden forms like social or relational bullying. Sometimes stereotypes also get in the way of real understanding. Sometimes people are more likely to see the problem that’s most recently been in the news.
All of this makes it crucial to collect data from all members of a school community (including students, school staff and parents) about how they view their school climate and whether they feel safe, and to use that data to make decisions
Learn more about how to collect data in your school.
For a safe school plan to be successful, all members of the school community—from the cafeteria workers and school bus drivers to the teachers and students—must actively support and engage with its principles. To build this buy-in, all members of a school community must feel that they have a voice in contributing to the safe school plan and that their role in creating and maintaining a safe school environment is recognized and respected. Strategies to build buy-in include:
- Hosting conversations or town-hall discussions with school community members to understand the challenges they face
- Working to allay concerns about how safe school plans may affect existing work, responsibilities, or burden
- Choosing strategies that compliment work already being done
- Recognizing the unique role each member of the community plays and the unique contributions they may add to a safe school plan
- Having flexibility to adapt or change a plan based on feedback from school community members
Student Engagement +
Establishing a safe school environment requires students to take an active role to change their own circumstances. Supporting student leadership and student-led initiatives is crucial to build student buy-in and to changing the norms that may drive behaviors like bullying. These student-led initiatives can include:
- Anti-bullying clubs or “gay-straight alliances” that aim to provide a welcoming environment for all students
- Committees of students who work to improve key aspects of school climate
- Students might, for example, create a compact with other students that specifies both unacceptable and positive behaviors.Or they might develop a plan to prevent cyberbullying or assure safety on school buses or in hallways
- Enabling older students to mentor younger students
- Creating awareness campaigns about bullying and other issues
Student engagement can also be promoted by helping students understand how bullying and other safe schools issues violate their human rights to an education and to freedom from discrimination and persecution. Using curricula such as the Speak Truth To Power program, a free Common-Core aligned series of lesson plans from the RFK Center, can help encourage youth to become defenders for their school and the world. This lesson on anti-bullying advocate Jamie Nabozny may be particularly useful for schools looking to engage youth around the issue of bullying.
Community and Family Engagement +
The school community is not limited to those within the school building. For safe school initiatives to be successful, their messages must continue into homes and communities. It’s important for schools to actively engage parents and community representatives to understand community-wide challenges, such as racial or ethnic tensions, and to encourage community members to adopt similar principles. It’s also important for parents to hold schools accountable for creating safe environments.
School staff members need to receive training on the best way to implement a safe school environment. The training should be developed based on the safe school plans developed by the leadership team and supported by the information gathered from the school community.
Training does not need to cost a lot of money. Many free resources are available to help teachers understand how to create and maintain safe environments, including this training developed by the U.S. Department of Education.
Many curricular programs used for bullying prevention (such as social and emotional learning and others) also require pre-implementation training for teachers and other staff.
Starting any program without providing training can have negative consequences. Often, the very practices we think should work can be counterproductive:
- Peer mediation or peer counseling for bullying: The power imbalance between the child who bullied and the child who was bullied can further victimize the child who was bullied
- Group counseling for aggressive children: Aggressive children often increase their aggression after such treatment
- Zero-tolerance policies and practices: Removing a child who has bullied from school does little to change his or her behavior or to repair the damage bullying has done
Programs and Practices +
The final step of the framework is to implement evidence-based programs and practices that fit the school community’s needs and challenges. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Schools must implement programs and practices that are supported by data in order to help ensure success. Schools must consider their specific situation, needs, and available resources when selecting a program or series of practices.
Learn more about selecting the evidence based programs and practices that will work for your school.