Being safe and feeling safe aren’t the same thing — and the difference will matter when schools open

This post looks at the issue of safety through a different lens. Written by Barry Svigals and Sam Seidel of Stanford University, it looks at what it means to be safe at school, and making the point that nobody can accomplish that for students if they don’t really understand what being safe means to students.

Svigals is currently a Reimagining School Safety fellow at the Stanford Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, known as the, which is design thinking institute based at Stanford. He is also founder of Svigals+Partners, the architectural firm that designed the new Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. (The old school was demolished after the 2012 shooting deaths there of 26 people, including 20 children, by a former student.)

Sam Seidel is the director of K12 Strategy + Research at the Stanford, and co-director of its K12 Lab, which focuses on closing opportunity gaps in K-12 education by experimenting with new models and design approaches.

By Barry Svigals and Sam Seidel

Students will be heading back to school in the era of covid-19 and the killing of George Floyd. What will safety mean for them? While struggling to protect students from a life-threatening disease, we need to acknowledge the elephant in the room. We are ignoring a greater and growing threat to the lives of our children: their sense of​ feeling​ safe as well as ​being safe.

In 2019, it was 200 times more likely that a student would take their own life than have it be lost in an incident of school violence. This inconceivable reality has not gone away. Recent research since March from Sandy Hook Promise suggests that suicide is now even more likely… by nearly 150 percent. As students experienced seclusion at home in the new age of social distancing, their ​Say Something​ Anonymous Reporting System revealed a frightening increase of serious suicide tips from 7 percent before covid-19 to 18 percent now.

We have made the mistake of ignoring a greater threat before… when school shootings were the problem.

Pre-pandemic, our national obsession were the rare instances of extreme violence, while far greater problems stemming from an inattention to emotional well-being were often marginalized. But who would believe they were greater?

The numbers are clear: in 2018, fatalities from school shootings represented one-tenth of a percent of all fatalities in young adults from the ages of 10-24. Suicides represented nearly 25 percent. On top of that, more than 160,000 students stayed home from school each day for fear of bullying. Somehow, these extraordinary statistics of trauma in our schools escaped us, overshadowed by the very rare, but highly publicized acts of extreme violence.

They are now obscured by our new obsession: the fear of covid-19.

As plans are being made to once again return to school, there is an urgency to understand what we mean by “safety” and how it affects the lives of our students. Here are three critical components:

1. Being safe and feeling safe are not the same thing.

If we fail to understand this distinction, our schools will lose their meaning: students cannot learn if they don’t feel safe. Well-being needs to be a priority. Pre-covid-19, safety was most often thought of as “hardening” the school’s architecture, providing security personnel, improving emergency protocols along with adding special “safety features” such as surveillance devices and metal detectors. Those efforts often brought with them unintended consequences: many actually made students feel less safe, particularly students of color.

Some of these same unintended consequences are already apparent in solutions now being proposed for a “safe” return to school. ​Early planning in a number of schools has been characterized by protected ways to stand in line outside, sparsely furnished classrooms, and regular sanitizing of surfaces. Besides the question of whether or not these strategies can be realized or will be effective at preventing spread of the virus, how will they make students and teachers feel?

​These well-intended efforts contain little or no mention of how the students, already fragile, will be affected by this altered learning environment.

While these strategies rightly have an importance, they are overlooking the impact they have on the emotional lives of the students. Given the research, ignoring that could — at the very least — further traumatize many young people.

2. All ​students need to feel safe.

Another threat is largely unseen​. ​Safety measures will not be experienced by all students in the same way. Black students are disciplined more severely than their peers for the same behavior. Rules and protocols requiring masks, distancing, and hygiene would be difficult to enforce in the best of circumstances. We can predict from years of data that new rules regarding “social distancing” will not be enforced equally. For students who have been exposed to recent acts of police violence toward themselves and members of their communities, this has the potential to cause even more psychological pain.

Already, the emotional needs for students of color and those from impoverished communities are even greater. ​We know that hundreds of thousands of students — disproportionately black and brown students — are suffering. It is likely students will be returning to school soon, but if resources are not identified to address these challenges, a safe and equitable​ return will be difficult to achieve.

  • What care is in place for students who have lost family members to the coronavirus?
  • Who will support students whose families are undergoing severe financial hardship, those who have no food, those who are homeless?
  • How might issues of racism and school safety be raised in an open and supportive environment?
  • How could new protocols impact different students differently?
  • How might they exacerbate existing emotional trauma or depression?
  • What will the emotional impact be for students having to wear masks and maintain social distance?
  • How will separated desks and remote teachers feel to students?

These are questions that should be foremost in the minds of all educational designers looking at transitioning back to school.

We might approach this design challenge from another perspective: can these strategies actually alleviate underlying distress and actively contribute to well-being while promoting a more equitable school environment where all students feel welcome? If this is a clearly stated aim, creative forces will undoubtedly address them.

3. A robust and sustainable design process is essential for our schools to both be safe and feel safe.

A strong inclusive decision-making process will be crucial in the ever-changing landscape of threats, remedies, and challenging decisions that lie ahead. Initiatives will be tried and adjusted; openings and then closings because of outbreaks seem inevitable; public response could be volatile. With respect to solutions, no one size fits all. Each school is unique in its architecture, school culture, teaching, and administration. This necessitates a process which can sustain a balanced and comprehensive approach.

Most importantly, students must be at the forefront of re-imagining school safety and what it means for them. Young people have been at the forefront of recent protests. Solutions created without them will lack the buy-in and on-going support that they will inevitably need. Our strategic planning should also include school psychologists, school nurses, social workers, teachers, and families.

Moreover, an inclusive design process is itself the first opportunity to begin strengthening the school community as a whole. By drawing input from all affected constituencies, responses to evolving realities can be more strategically connected to real needs and more sustainable over time.

One of the authors of this piece led the process of designing the elementary school for Sandy Hook in the wake of the unspeakable tragedy that occurred there. Decision-making might easily have been overwhelmed by grief and fear. Instead, gathering a wide cross-section of the town, they asked what they loved most about their community and what they deeply wished for their children. In that embrace, a path forward was taken to create a school that was founded upon joy rather than fear.

Well-being, equity, and community process.

Seen in this holistic light, back-to-school strategies around safety could be transformative. Every decision, every interaction, every collaboration would aim to nourish well-being, inspire inclusion and equity, and strengthen the school community as a whole. Everyone participates, everyone contributes, everyone is responsible for the well-being of every student and every student is cared for.​

Coming back to school in the era of covid-19, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the global uprising that followed, we have a unique opportunity. Can we expand our understanding of school safety to put well-being and delight in learning at the heart of all our efforts? Students then could both be safe and feel safe.

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