Four Ways that Student Leaders Transform School Safety (As seen in DisruptEd TV Magazine)
Updated: Nov 13, 2020
When we discuss school safety at best we discuss measures to improve mental health services, fund more School Resource Officers and at worst find ourselves mired in debates about gun control that do not have a foreseeable outcome. We consider increased police, infrastructural changes, even teachers carrying guns.
We are looking at school safety without considering the thousands of people that we are trying to keep safe.
Culture impacts safety, and students are the biggest influencers of school culture.
How can student leadership transform school safety?
Most schools have a framework to support their culture; many use Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS) although there are many Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and character programs that schools are implementing. A powerful component of PBIS is a group of student leaders usually referred to as Student Ambassadors. Every school can initiate a similar student leadership group.
We usually choose students for leadership groups on campus that exhibit leadership ability and are “model students” based on their grades and positive conduct. For most schools, this group is a small percentage of the student body. When we look past model students, we are able to engage students on a much larger scale.
The more you challenge yourself to think outside of the typical student leader when recruiting kids for this group, the more representative of your actual school this group will be. I highly suggest including all students who show leadership and express an interest in creating a more connected campus, regardless of whether they are the highest achievers and the most involved in extracurricular activities or not. This is an opportunity to engage students who generally do not participate in school activities. Involving diverse students will create an authentic student voice.
The Vision: Empowering Students as Leaders on Campus
Effective student initiatives include a voice for diverse students. As part of our PBIS implementation at the school where I work, we have approximately eighty students that collaborate to create a caring, connected campus. We were careful to include students with all different interests, abilities, and backgrounds. The students attended two conferences, one that focused on peer mediation and another on mental health awareness and the suicide crisis among teens. These conferences opened up the students minds and hearts and they came back determined to make their school a more inclusive, connected, and safe place.
There is a broad offering of Social Emotional Learning programs and conferences available with which to create awareness and inspiration among students. Students can hold regular meetings, become a campus club, have a common Advisory, or meet in a leadership course. This really depends on how developed the group is and the needs of the school.
At our school, the Student Ambassadors began with an assembly in early winter, followed up by an appearance in a second assembly in the spring. The administration supports them and meets with them regularly to discuss concerns on campus. Administration also sponsored them in bringing a youth theatre group that performed a skit to create awareness of mental health issues and bullying.
The Student Ambassadors also began spreading information about resources around campus and on social media, speaking during Advisories, wearing t-shirts on Thursdays to identify them as peer support, supporting incoming freshmen by visiting feeder schools, assisting with school activities, providing peer mediation for conflicts on campus, and the list goes on. The students know exactly what they need on campus to improve culture and safety.
Every single activity was the group’s idea; I only have a supporting role. There are many ways to start a group like this on a smaller scale. If that’s where your school is at, I highly recommend starting with an assembly and having the students identify themselves on campus with t-shirts to create visibility. For schools that already have similar programs, there is much more work to be done; we haven’t even begun to implement everything that the students have mentioned. We still have “study buddies” in the works as well as Peer Mentoring transfer students, to name a few.
Once you have a group of campus leaders, they will be able to transform your campus culture in four key areas:
1. Combat bullying by fostering a Culture of Kindness
By training your student leadership in Social Emotional Learning, attending a youth conference on mental health, or looking for other ways to heighten their awareness of others’ feelings, you provide the impetus for a wave of kindness on campus. The students do a great job of developing and implementing creative ways to spread this wave of kindness.
Peer Mediation programs teach students the important social emotional skills of conflict resolution and the ability to view issues from diverse perspectives. Students also develop sophisticated communication skills such as active listening. Mediation is used in our court system as a powerful tool for de-escalating and resolving problems. Allowing teens to work with their peers on campus empowers youth to seek solutions and to take responsibility for their disagreements.
2. Communicating about threats with Administration, creating a Culture of Communication
Students by far outnumber any other group on campus and are the largest influencers of campus culture. By involving students, we go right to the source. Students are almost always aware of threats way ahead of the adults on campus. Often they do not feel comfortable sharing potentially important information with adults for fear of retaliation, whether physically or socially. Anonymous tip lines can be helpful but students must feel safe and trust administration for them to really share about threats. Students have to know that administration has their back and will protect them from retaliation. This only happens when real relationships and trust are established. Engaging with student leaders is a positive move in this direction.
3. Mental Health Awareness & Support, establishing a Culture of Connection
When we discuss culture, we are looking at the relationships and the connections that are present on campus. These relationships have the potential to support students, to raise their self-esteem and to connect them to resources when they are in need. Nationwide our youth are in a mental health crisis. Anxiety, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and eating disorders are on the rise and suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth. A large factor in this crisis is social isolation. Mental health awareness and connecting students to services are key to addressing these issues on campus.
Students are able to create a more connected campus much more effectively than adults can. Youth know what is needed; if we engage them in real conversation and allow them to openly share about the needs of the students on our campuses, we will gain a wealth of knowledge. Often adults spend a great deal of time speculating about what students’ needs are and then are surprised by what students actually need.
4. Students Building an Action Plan, guiding leaders to build a Culture of Commitment
What better way to prepare the future leaders of tomorrow than to guide them in their efforts to address important issues on campus? When students feel that their voice is heard and validated, they become invested in finding solutions. Often student initiatives begin with a great deal of enthusiasm which can wane over time in the absence of an action plan. This is where as adults we can support students in creating and implementing their vision of a safer, more connected campus.