School Beat: Keeping Our Students Safe

by Lisa Schiff on September 23, 2010

Safety is an absolute requirement for successful schools. Children can only thrive and make the most out of the educational opportunities available to them if their environment and personal safety are secure. This pre-condition for education is so fundamental that it is written into our education code as the Safe Place to Learn Act (Section 234-234.3 of the California Education Code). A hard reality for school communities, but one that we must face up to and and address more vigorously, is that violence does occur in our schools, just like it does elsewhere in our society. We have no choice then but to work harder to prevent student crime before it happens and when it does occur, to address it honestly and openly, making especially sure to prioritize the support of student victims.

Unfortunately, the attainment of student safety and how we deal with breaches of it leave something to be desired. Safety is addressed inconsistently from school to school depending on available interests, motivations and resources. And addressing safety is a complicated, ongoing effort. It is not and never will be something checked off a list, like removing old carpeting or reinforcing structures for earthquakes. Safety issues are complicated because they involve our kids both as victims and as perpetrators, because enough of the world of children is invisible to adults no matter how observant and connected we try to be, and because all of the pressures, stresses and inequalities that are issues in other educational areas are just as much at play in the relations between students.

Over the past year or so, the Board of Education (BOE) and San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) staff have focused the majority of their attention regarding safety and student violence on what to do after violence occurs. Students who commit serious offenses at school and are suspended or expelled lose educational time and have an even harder challenge meeting grade-level expectations, which in turn can contribute to making school life a negative experience. An ugly cycle gets established. Compounding this, rates for expulsions, suspensions and other disciplinary actions are higher for students who are in groups not being served well by the SFUSD, specifically African-American and Latino students, and students receiving special education services.

The BOE has turned to the “Restorative Justice” model to address this complex of problems, which they formally adopted as a policy on October 13, 2009. The hope is that this model — having students who committ offenses become aware of the impact of their actions and take on responsibility for addressing the resultant consequences thereby enabling them to stay in school — will address the educational cost of students missing school due to suspensions and expulsions and will have a healing and positive result for all affected.

But restorative justice is not the answer to our school safety and student violence problem. While it is a worthwhile approach, by definition it can only be but one component in a larger effort to keep our students safe and to deal with violence when it occurs. Restorative justice is only appropriate for certain offenses (not, for instance, for violent assaults on children) and only comes in to play after the fact. What we absolutely need right from the start is a strong program that has as its objective preventing student crime before it happens. We must have as our priority the reduction in numbers of student victims and student perpetrators, and be prepared with solutions like, but not restricted to, restorative justice when our efforts fail.

Particularly when violent assault occurs, our immediate concern should be for the welfare of the student victim. The SFUSD student handbook lists ways to report offenses, but does not describe how students who have been victimized will be supported so that they feel and are safe again in their schools. This perspective is shockingly absent from almost all discussions of student safety and school violence in our district, in the California education code, and elsewhere. When our children are harmed we need to protect them, otherwise we are victimizing them once more and making that victim pay the price of a crime that was committed against them. An unspoken assumption seems to be that because these victims are children, these assaults do not need to be treated as seriously as they would be were the victims adults. This is simply not acceptable.

A policy that clearly supports student safety, focuses on reducing student crime and violence, that emphasizes support for student victims and details how to accomplish that, and also includes constructive methods for working with students who commit offensives is absolutely essential right now. We cannot have one piece without the others, or we will fail in our efforts to keep our children healthy and safe and make our school communities strong. Some elements that should be addressed in such a policy include:

* Safety audits should be conducted and acted on yearly at all schools.

* Students who commit violence against others that result in injury or that were intended to do harm must be taken off campus by their parents/guardians and be under the supervision of parents/guardians. It is not acceptable for parents to “release them.” If the parent, guardian or other authorized person for whatever reason cannot pick up their child, then that child must be held somewhere until a pick up is possible or should be escorted to the parent so they are not free to victimize someone else.

* Acts of violence resulting in injury or that were intended to do harm must be reported to the police immediately.

* Protection of student victims must be of the highest priority — students should not be penalized for being victims. The needs of perpetrators must be second to the needs of victims. Principals and other administrative staff must work with students and parents/guardians to reestablish a safe environment for student victims, including: addressing unsupervised times and areas; swift communication with all staff regarding incidents of violence; the creation of plans to address the specific circumstances that allowed for the act of violence.

* Schools and the SFUSD in general must communicate closely with the District Attorney’s office regarding legal processes that are taking place involving student violence so that SFUSD responses, such as expulsion and student placement, are conducted appropriately.

* Levels of school violence need to be more openly reported. Downplaying or masking school violence is not a way to address this very real problem. The SFUSD and the District Attorney’s office should work together to develop plans to address the full spectrum of student violence, from dealing with the repercussions after an act of violence to ways of preventing violence.

* “Restorative Justice Circles” should not be promoted or pushed onto student victims of violent assault, but should be used as a secondary or tertiary activity apart from all other measures if at all. Forcing student victims to confront assailants can be harmful.

* If charges have been filed and a “stay away order” has been placed on a child who has committed an assault, schools must work with victims, their parents and if necessary, the District Attorney’s office to determine what comprises a sufficient stay-away plan and then work with the assailant and his or her family to implement that plan.

* When the child who committed an assault returns to school, it should be mandatory that the parent or guardian bring that child to school and participate in a re-orientation session to lessen the possibility of a repeated offense.

Educational quality, defined in a myriad of ways, is typically the first thing most of us focus on when thinking about how well schools serve our own and other children. This makes sense, because within the context of an institution such as a school, what children can learn will be bounded to a great degree by both the limits and opportunities found in such a setting. But there are foundational elements that must be in place regardless of the skill of the teaching staff, the variety of curricula and activities, and the engagement of the school community. The most fundamental of those elements is safety. If our children are not safe, if they don’t feel secure, they will not be able to learn to their potential, not matter what else surrounds them.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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