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Relationships: The Essential Ingredient in School Safety

Originally posted on 9/4/2019, this post talks about the intersection of violence and schooling and how strengthening our relationships creates a safer educational environment. When we have a break from the day-to-day needs and realities of school life, we can think more broadly about what we hope is true in our hallways; as you read, we encourage you to think about school safety, and how relationships can foster that, over the summer.

Gun violence in schools is an unimaginable fear, but it’s a real one. There are no sacred spaces; there isn’t a place where folks can go without a fear of gun violence. Religious institutions, schools, festivals, and shopping areas are part of what continues to be a growing list of spots that have been affected by gun violence. How we react to this fear and violence, as a society, matters. Schools are microcosms of society, and so their reactions are important and perhaps easier to see on a local level.  

A local news outlet in Pittsburgh, PA (where I live) ran a piece about how schools in Pennsylvania spent money specifically allocated for school safety in the wake of gun violence, and it piqued my curiosity. I wondered what lengths schools would go to in the name of safety and which schools might try measures to increase trust and communication between students and staff. Here’s a quick look at what I found:

-45% of grant recipients (104 applicants) wanted to spend money on replacing or installing video surveillance equipment;

-39% of applicants (90 school districts) did not ask for any technological upgrades but rather asked for more counseling and mental health services for their students;

-New Castle Area School District pledged to provide school-based counseling and to cover the cost of counseling for families whose insurance wouldn’t cover the off-site trauma services that they needed;

-Just over ten percent of applicants wanted money to cover school resource or police officers;

-Other investments that many schools wanted included radios, bullet-proof glass, electronic locks, and strobe lights;

-A handful of districts wanted equipment or technology that would help with digital surveillance.  

In the same article, Ken Trump, a national school security expert who reviewed the list of grant applications, shared advice that I wish more schools would heed: “Security cameras are not going to jump off the walls, interact with kids, assess and evaluate threats, provide services to kids, [and] build relationships with kids.” I’m a big believer in listening to experts, and this wisdom feels like a critical piece to address violence in schools. The work that needs to be done is in building relationships; interaction might be the essential ingredient. Creating a police state where kids know they’re being watched but don’t know who to ask for help with serious issues they’re facing (or potentially don’t even recognize that they need help in the first place) should have caring and trusted adults to help them do this. Every single student in a school should have an advocate who deeply cares about them, and I do understand the resources that takes. But when schools try to maximize efficiency (by increasing video surveillance and adding bullet-proof glass) rather than investing in personnel (through training and good hiring & retention practices), students won’t get what they need to be their best.  

I believe too many schools have defined the issue of school safety too narrowly. Thinking through ways to combat potential school violence should put more emphasis, time, and resource into prevention than reaction. Defining this work as ensuring the well-being, happiness, and success of every student (and if we’re honest, every person) is the right problem for schools and systems to tackle in the long run. Some students will need an incredible amount of help to get there, but no one can begin that work without first building a relationship. In different schools at different grades with different teachers, I know that this work can feel like it falls squarely outside of a teacher’s scope of responsibility. But I also know (because I’ve seen it done by incredible school staff through tireless perseverance) that our kids need us to lean in and love them when they are at their least lovable. Their struggles, whether academic, social, or behavioral shouldn’t (necessarily) require a referral, but they should require a relationship to be strengthened.  

And still, in our world, it is important to have a plan to respond to violent situations and talk that through with faculty and students. There are students who come to school with issues that are bigger than even the tireless work of dedicated teachers can handle; our counties, states, and country need better systems to support mental health and to lessen the draw of radicalization to any ideology.  

Our students are watching us. They see our reactions and our interactions. What is your school system doing to identify kids whose struggles seem beyond the ordinary, who are isolated, alone at lunch, anti-social, and/or writing about violence on social media? Are those kids avoided, even by teachers, because we are afraid of them, or don’t know what to do or who to refer them to? What might you do, starting the moment they enter your school, to help them feel encouraged, safe, and loved?  

Do you want help planning activities, structures, or routines to invite stronger relationships? Let us know; we would be excited to help.


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