We’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years listening, observing, asking questions, and making meaning based on conversations with school staff and students in conjunction with our visits. As we published in our Radically Reimagined Relationships (RRR) report, schools that prioritized the belonging and connection of its constituencies (staff, students, and families) were creating safer places that allowed for relevant learning. But schools and policies often focus their discussions of safety narrowly (in terms of violence prevention) rather than thinking more broadly. While we agree that preventing violence is essential, we also recognize that it’s the floor, rather than the ceiling, when it comes to safety. Our understanding of this topic is both different and deeper, in that we believe that conversations about safety should ultimately manifest in talking about connection, belonging, and well-being.
We take an expansive view on school safety because it’s a foundational piece of anyone’s experience. Without safety, it is incredibly difficult to learn. It’s also really challenging to achieve that feeling of safety amongst all students, families, and staff. Creating spaces that foster it require much more than thinking about building design. Rather than focus on if there are metal detectors (which are way more likely in schools with a majority of students of color—see our Facebook post from Monday for more), or if the school is locked down during the day, we need more conversation about how we’re building connection and whether each person feels like they genuinely belong.
When we say belonging, we mean that any person can show up at school exactly as they are and know that they will be genuinely and warmly welcomed into the community. No person should feel the need to change how they dress, how they speak, whom they love, or how they identify when they walk through the doors. We have to actively move away from ideas of tolerance and acceptance, which do not allow for someone to belong. No one who is tolerated will experience belonging and connection. Let’s reserve tolerance for things like too much snow and your roommate’s taste in music. When we merely seek tolerance, we don’t do the difficult work of breaking down stereotypes or seeking true understanding; we don’t learn how to challenge our own thinking and look for our blind spots. Our schools should help us.
In order to create places that are safer, schools also need to focus on connection. Belonging can help us move toward genuinely connecting with each other, but schools need to use their resources, including time, to ensure that every single person within the school (and every family) forms meaningful relationships with others. If we don’t do this, schools will breed isolation, which will undermine any attempt at school safety.
Belonging and connection are the foundation of well-being, allowing students, staff, and families to see themselves as integral parts of a community that cares about them. This is the true foundation of safety. And while safety is the end, it’s also the beginning. It is what allows us to learn deeply about ourselves, others, and our world; it’s what allows us to think of creative solutions to all kinds of issues; it’s what allows us to figure out how we can contribute to our society and work for a more just world. As winter turns to spring, and more schools consider how to safely return to some form of in-person learning, we encourage administrators to think about how to prioritize connection and belonging after an extended isolation. Your commitment will be worth it.
Are you looking for ideas about how to bring about more connection or belonging in your classroom or school? Reach out to us; we’re happy to help.