Our mission, our focus, our commitment is to the safety of schools nationwide. In addition to the primary, middle and secondary-level schools we support, it’s important to also consider non-traditional and private educational situations. After-school programs, preschools, and religious classes all share similar challenges in protecting the safety and security of the students, teachers and staff.
If this isn’t evident to you, then certainly the recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centers makes that crystal clear. While threats to date were not carried out, they are serious and harm the sense of security and safety our children feel in these educational environments. Dr. Melissa Reeves, president of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), says racism, discrimination, and prejudices harm students and their families. It can have a profoundly negative effect on school climate, a sense of physical and psychological safety, school achievement, social-emotional growth, and self-efficacy, according to Reeves.
“As school leaders and educators, it is imperative that we establish a climate of acceptance, facilitate positive discussions focused on understanding and celebrating differences, and help develop a future generation of citizens who make the conscious choice to focus on collaboration and cooperation, not divisiveness,” said Reeves. “Students, staff, teachers, and parents must feel safe at our schools and in our communities in order for learning to occur.”
Unfortunately, because they are not in a traditional “public school setting,” these other educational programs might not feel as connected to the important network of local safety experts.
We would be remiss if we didn’t offer some suggestions to help communities address the impact these threats have on our students in both traditional and non-traditional educational settings.
1. In December, we published a blog post that offers five suggestions to help ease concerns students may have about current events. These include making time for discussion, encouraging kindness, compassion and inclusiveness, teaching acceptance, being vocal, and seeking help. You can refer back to this post for more details, but these suggestions are absolutely relevant in this case, too, and may help remove some anxiety students might feel.
2. To help strengthen the safety network, broaden your partnerships to include local law enforcement. Sure, police departments play an important role in keeping communities safe as a whole, but they are also a positive force able to help keep schools safe. Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, says law enforcement can work with educators to collaborate on safe school crisis training, purposeful use of technology, and effective use of interagency partners. The organization’s comprehensive report, To Protect and Educate: The School Resource Officer and the Prevention of Violence in Schools, offers reference points school policymakers can use as they assess and plan to strengthen their safety.
3. Just as these situations have targeted religious institutions, we, too, can target our local religious organizations to remind them of the free resources and tools Safe and Sound Schools offers. The Straight-A Safety Improvement model works just as well for a synagogue, church, community center or mosque as they do for a traditional K-12 school. If you are part of a religious organization, please share our Assess, Act and Audit tools with your clergy or community leaders.
4. Finally, when talking with our children about any event that singles out a group of people, it is important to foster empathy. We talked with Rabbi Lisa Eiduson from a Jewish congregation in Massachusetts to get her perspective on these threats. She pointed to the idea that anyone targeted, whether bullied at school or receiving a threat, can feel like an outsider.
“When we look around and speak to people outside of our small community, we realize that we are in the company of many people and groups that likewise suffer from feelings of ‘being othered,’” Eiduson said. “Whether it is religion, skin color, nationality, sexual preference, physical or mental disability – even philosophical world-view – it is sobering to look beyond ourselves and see that there are many in our midst who also feel a bit like strangers in a strange land.”
We should talk to our students about this feeling of “otherness,” and by sharing this notion, we can come together and unify. Rabbi Eiduson says when we talk about this concept, we can pay closer attention to those who may feel pushed aside, listen to their stories with greater empathy, and “take action to strengthen ourselves so that we can strengthen others.”
Now more than ever, we need to come together to ensure the safety – emotional and physical – of our children. Threats are scary, real and harmful, but they don’t have to be the end of the story. From one-on-one talks to broader community conversations and partnerships, schools of all types have several tools available to help in the process. Let’s connect and work together to ensure community centers, after-school programs, pre-schools and other non-traditional learning environments are just as safe and secure as any other public or private school.
Michele Gay, Co-founder and Executive Director of Safe and Sound Schools
Mo Canady, Executive Director, National Association of School Resource Officers
Rabbi Lisa Eiduson, Massachusetts
Dr. Melissa Reeves, PhD