Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

Take a look at social media, television news and newspapers and it is clear that parents are becoming increasingly concerned about violence in schools.

Parents are often responding to their children’s experience in schools since the COVID pandemic and media coverage of school violence, not to statistics.

COVID left many students in untenable situations at home or on the streets.  Students came back to school in some cases having been verbally, physically or sexually abused.  Some were neglected.  Some were and are homeless.  Some came back to school not having eaten regularly.  They came back to school frustrated, angry or anxious.

If they are confronted or backed into a corner, they may react strongly.  There is a dramatic need to train staff in how to deescalate conflicts with students and parents.  More mental health staff must be provided in the schools to help students readjust to the demands of adults they haven’t seen for 12 months or more.   As important, mental health care is vital for school staff who are stressed by what they are experiencing in school and burning out.

What then can be done to increase school safety now?  Several steps can be taken that have proven to work over time.

Among the keys to school safety are improved communication, clear positive rules and consistency among all adults in the building in enforcing rules and treating students positively.

Get to know the students in the school.  This can be done by everyone who works in and around the school including school bus drivers, cafeteria staff, secretarial and custodial staff, as well as teachers, administrators, counselors, social workers, volunteers and psychologists among others.

Do the simple things.  Say hello to every student you see.  Ask them how they are doing, how their day is going.  If they tell you that they had a rough night at home, that their parents are divorcing, that a grandparent died, or a significant pet died, listen to them, empathize.  If you see a student sitting alone in the lunchroom, say hello, ask them how they’re doing.  If you sense a serious problem, ask if they would like to talk with someone and help them make the connection.

For many students, the adult contact they have at school is their only significant adult contact for the day.

When students are moving between classes, be out in the hallway.  Talk with the students, make eye contact, greet them, and ask them how they’re doing.

In one high school with which I worked, we reduced student arrests by 38% simply by staff being out in the hallways at passing time and talking with students during lunch periods.

Set positive stated rules for the school and the classroom.  Instead of “don’t run” say “walk.”  Instead of “no fighting” say keep your hands and feet to yourself.   Instead of saying “be respectful” make sure that students know what respect looks like.   Some rules need to be demonstrated such as “being respectful” or “use a quiet voice.”  The idea is simple.  Tell students what you want them to do, not what you don’t want them to do and remind them before an activity like passing between classes.

Any adult can confront a student about a positively stated rule, by saying this.  “What are you doing?”  Then the adult can say “what are you supposed to doing?”   When the student knows that you know who they are, they are much less likely to react negatively.

Don’t assume that students know what you mean.  Among the 20 to 30 different adults a secondary school student sees every day, every adult has a different view of what a vague statement like “you know what you’re supposed to do” means.

All adults in the school need to model the positive behaviors they want from students.  Police or school resource officers can only be helpful in school if they know the students and if adults in the school do not assume that their presence is the solution to making the school safer.  Making the school safer is the responsibility of all adults.

We still must hold students accountable for their behavior.  A felony is a felony.  If a student assaults or threatens a teacher or staff member, that incident must be reported.  Don’t think that you’re helping the student by ignoring what happened.  The steps taken in response need to depend on the student.   But there must be follow up.  If a student is suspended or expelled, there must be a plan when a student returns from a suspension or an expulsion.

When staff work together and with their communities and students, schools can be made safer.

Nicholas A. Fischer, Ed.D is the Former Superintendent of Schools in New London, Fall River, MA and Christina, DE. He is also a Former Associate Commissioner, Finance and Accountability for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.