School isn't what it used to be. A generation ago, most rebellion in school was directed toward having to follow rules, attend classes, and make good grades. But that rebellion came in the form of cutting class, writing graffiti on bathroom walls, maybe playing pranks on other students, or some other sort of mild retribution for perceived unfairness. But in today's society, such forms of rebellion are considered child's play. Today, school can be dangerous, even life-threatening.
Kindergarten and elementary schools can certainly have confrontational situations between students, and even between students and teachers. But the most vulnerable, volatile school environment today appears to be middle schools and high schools. Because middle school is when children are beginning to develop their own maturity and learn about the real world, verbal exchanges with other students go from mere taunts and name-calling to vicious racial, sexual, and religious references, threats of violence, and even fighting or brandishing a weapon.
Educators need to be aware of these possibilities, and work toward ensuring that the classroom and learning environment in general is safe for everyone, students and teachers alike. Adolescents aged 10 through 15 are going through incredible physical, mental, and social changes, and they are often troubled and frightened by these changes. So they take that frustration out on others. They may be insecure about what is going on with their bodies, and they may be struggling to find their way in society and among their peers in school. They are particularly vulnerable to comments from others, and particularly easy to influence when it comes to the perceived possibility of bettering their self-image or the image they portray to others.
Students create groups and cliques of like-minded friends, and those groups often adopt a competitive stance with other groups. But although such students may seem tough and confident on the outside, they are actually quite fragile and can easily interpret comments and behavior from others as rejection or criticism. Their minds and psyches are still developing, so their ability to reason and censor their own behavior has not yet been developed entirely. So they intentionally divert attention away from themselves by being insensitive, inflammatory, intolerant, and disdainful of others.
Educators should realize all of these things and acknowledge that ensuring a safe learning environment for everyone is closely tied to understanding the mindset of the students, and how to address issues that may result in safety being compromised.
An effective plan for keeping a school safe involves an underlying commitment on the part of educators and administrators. There should be a 'zero tolerance' policy implemented throughout the school that spells out the actions that might make the school unsafe―harassment, bullying, physical taunts and violence, intimidating or threatening words or actions. Written copies of the 'zero tolerance' policy need to be posted in visible locations throughout the school, and given to all teachers. Administrators should find ways to ensure that every student is aware of the policy, and letters should be sent home so parents will also be aware of the policy.
A safety policy should be based on certain behavior that are important for students, parents, and teachers to adhere to. Mutual respect should be encouraged; racial or ethnic comments or slurs should be outlawed; students should be instructed to respect differences in other students or teachers; and any discriminatory behavior or harassment should be reported immediately to an adult. Be sure to make it clear that reporting inappropriate behavior is different from simply 'tattling' on other students―reporting such behavior is vital to keeping the learning environment safe.
When problems arise, all involved parties should act quickly and appropriately. Administrators should quickly investigate the causes of incidents and talk with everyone involved. If weapons or physical violence are involved, the police should be called. Send letters home to parents advising them of the situation that has occurred, and any disciplinary steps that will be taken that involve their child. Ask parents for their support in helping you maintain a safe learning environment. Finally, use the incident as an opportunity to teach students about the consequences of inappropriate behavior, taunting, threatening, stereotyping, being intolerant, and causing problems in a school environment.
Young adolescents can be inspired and guided into becoming the leaders of tomorrow and pillars of society. But if they are misunderstood, and a safe learning environment is not created and maintained, they can easily become involved in dangerous situations that can affect them for the rest of their lives. It is up to educators, administrators, and parents to join in a concerted effort to ensure that the learning environment is a safe, secure, and supportive one, where students can thrive and excel.