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Based on recent media coverage, it may seem like schools are becoming more and more dangerous. But believe it or not, schools are actually one of the safest places students can be. School violence—which includes everything from shootings to physical fights—has actually significantly decreased over the years.
But it’s clear there’s still work to be done, and being fearful of or excluding students who seem “different” won’t help solve the problem. In fact, excluding people makes things worse. By creating a more positive and supportive school community, you can help prevent school violence. When everyone feels safe and included at school, the risk of violence decreases.
If you treat everyone with kindness and respect, you can help students who may be struggling to feel more positive, which may also reduce the likelihood of problems at school. Remember the old saying: You never know what someone is going through until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.
6 ways to make your school safer & happier
1. Get connected
School connectedness is the feeling that your fellow students and school staff care about each other and that everyone belongs. Here’s what school connectedness looks like:
- Being noticed. For example, you might want people to notice your athletic prowess, your A+ essay, or your unique sense of style.
- Having a say in your education. Have ideas about what books you want to read or a topic you really want to learn about? Let your teachers know.
- Getting involved. Is there a club you’re interested in? Start going to meetings. If the club doesn’t exist, get some friends together and start it yourself.
- A welcoming physical environment. Help secure a space to showcase student artwork, or ask to put up banners around the school. This helps create a more connected, positive space.
No matter what you’re interested in, you can help increase school connectedness by getting involved and helping other students get involved.
2. Accept and respect
You don’t have to be friends with every single student in school. In fact, no one really expects you to be. But it’s important to at least be friendly and respectful to everyone. Think about how you would feel if someone judged you because of what you wore, where you live, how you look, or who you’re attracted to.
As tempting as it sometimes is to take part in gossip, we all know that being on the receiving end of it feels miserable. What’s the point in spreading negativity? If you feel tempted to join in on trash-talking or socially excluding someone, here’s what you can do:
- Ask yourself if what you’re about to say could potentially be hurtful to someone. If it might be, don’t say it.
- Think about how you would feel if someone said what you’re about to say about you.
- Consider whether what you want to say is positive or negative. If it’s positive, go for it. If it’s negative, no need.
“I believe there are two ways to create safe and positive environments at school,” says Hannah, a student from Boston, Massachusetts. “The first is to ensure that in every interaction you are treating the other person as a person with thoughts and feelings that are valid, reasonable, and worth attention. The second is to use your influence as a friend, a bystander, and a fellow human to enforce that same behavior in others by speaking out when you see injustice. When you treat others this way, they will respond in kind, and when you reach out to help someone who may feel alone, misunderstood, and persecuted, your compassion and understanding can relieve those hurtful feelings and prevent them from lashing out at others.”
3. Become a peer leader
Get involved in workshops, programs, or class discussions on tolerance, acceptance, and respect.
You’ve probably noticed that you’re more likely to listen to someone your own age than to a parent or teacher. This is why peer leaders are so important in creating a more positive school environment. As a leader, you can help others understand why it’s so important to be tolerant and accepting of others.
“In high school, I had a class called ‘peer counseling,’” says Lena, a college student from Denver, Colorado. The goal of the class was to help students learn how to effectively handle peer-to-peer confrontations in non-physical ways. “I believe it helped because students are more likely to feel comfortable talking to another student rather than getting sent to the office and having to talk to the security officer or another type of administrator in the school. It allowed them to express themselves in a different way than they would to a principal or officer.”
Your school might already have a peer leadership program you can get involved in. If not, tell a teacher or school administrator about your idea and they can help you get started.
Even a few workshops or class discussions can make a difference. For example, you could:
- Facilitate a role-playing scenario, such as one where someone acts intolerant toward someone else for the way they look.
- Then, as a group, discuss what happened and how the situation could be resolved.
- If you don’t feel comfortable leading a group, ask a more outgoing friend or a teacher to get things started. Then you can find some behind-the-scenes ways to participate.
4. Try to include everyone
One way you can feel more connected at school is to get involved in social or extracurricular activities. But not everyone will feel comfortable participating in the activities your school offers. This is important to think about when you are part of a club or group.
Sometimes you may not be intentionally excluding other students, but you might see someone who seems to be withdrawn. People often become withdrawn because they feel depressed or rejected or they lack confidence. If you see someone isolating themselves from others, try asking them to eat lunch with you or to walk with you to class. It’s good to start small; someone might be willing to walk with you but might not be ready (yet) to hang out for longer periods of time.
“School violence often happens when people feel isolated from the rest of their peer group,” said Nancy Grossman, MS, school psychologist in the East Islip School District in New York. “Having a variety of clubs, from arts to sports to LGBTQ groups, where all students can feel like they have a place where they feel accepted and can be themselves will make students feel like they don’t have to turn to other ways to be noticed.”
If you’re part of a club, make sure you recruit widely in the school and let everyone know they’re welcome to join. You can also try:
- Talking to someone in one of your classes who you don’t know very well
- Sitting near someone new at lunch
- Hanging out in a different area during break or lunch and getting to know the people who hang out there
5. Create trusting relationships
Contrary to what you might think, not all adults want to make your life miserable. Some teachers or school staff can be really helpful when you’re having an issue, whether it’s personal or academic.
By working on building relationships and letting some adults into your confidence, you can make sure that you have someone to go to if or when you do have an issue. Creating these trusting relationships can also help you feel like you have a say in what happens at your school.
There are a lot of ways to create trusting relationships with teachers, school counselors, nurses, or administrators. For example:
- Ask one of your favorite teachers to be an advisor to a club you belong to. This will help you build a relationship outside of the classroom environment.
- Talk to a school staff member who you think you can trust. You can start small by getting to know them a little better. Ask about their life and tell them a little about yours.
- Be trustworthy. You want to trust the school staff, but they also need to trust you. Show up to class on time, do your homework, and be respectful to everyone.
“It’s important that students know they can find some allies among adults,” says Randy Ross, MS, MA, senior consultant at the National School Climate Center in New York City. “It can be difficult to make changes in a school without adult allies, but once you have those allies, you can gain a lot more influence. There are always at least a few teachers and administrators who really care about [the] issues students face. It’s a matter of finding those teachers and working with them.”
6. Help when you see a problem
While you’re working hard to create a more positive school environment, you might notice that some students have problems or are showing warning signs of serious issues. Here are some ways to help when you see that something is wrong:
- If you see someone getting angry, help calm them down by listening to them talk about why they’re angry, or, if you know them well enough, walk them through some calming exercises, like taking 10 slow breaths.
- If you see someone being made fun of, don’t laugh or join in. Instead, you can stand up for the person, reach out to let them know that you’re there for them, or walk away and let an adult know what’s happening.
- If someone you know starts using drugs or alcohol or doing dangerous things, you can suggest they join you in healthier activities. Try asking them to go to the movies or out for a bite to eat. By replacing risk-taking activities with fun, safe ones, you can help your friend regain self-control and feel happier overall.
- If someone is being aggressive (like hitting others or being defiant in class), try to ask them if they want to talk about what’s upsetting them. If they don’t want to talk, let them know that you’re there for them in case they ever change their mind.
- Everyone has their own likes and dislikes, but extreme hatred of other people based on characteristics such as race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or physical appearance is different. A big reason for hatred of individuals or groups is believing that those people are “different.” Show your support for all types of people by organizing a diversity day at school where everyone brings in something to represent their heritage, or by forming a gay-straight alliance.
It’s also important to know when it’s time to bring the problem to an adult. If anyone is being bullied repeatedly or is putting themselves or others at risk, get an adult involved. You don’t want to take on more serious problems all by yourself.
What to do if you feel like someone might be at risk for committing violence
Sometimes people can threaten violence just as a way of blowing off steam; they may not mean it seriously. But threatening violence or focusing consistently on violence in art, writing, or other methods of expression may be a sign that someone will actually do something violent. This is particularly true if the person also seems to have an obsession with or strong interest in weapons.
It might feel easier to ignore the problem or the person, but there are things you can do to help. Trying to understand why someone is having these issues and taking steps to help them can make a positive difference. But first and foremost, get an adult involved and make sure you stay safe.
If someone is at risk for becoming violent, you may see one or more of the following signs:
- Becoming withdrawn from friends and family
- Being bullied or bullying others
- Uncontrolled anger
- Expressing a desire to commit violence
- Increased risk-taking behavior, including using drugs and alcohol
- History of discipline problems or aggressive behavior
- Declining school performance or interest in school
- Intense prejudice or intolerance
How you can help
If you hear someone talking about how they want to hurt themselves or someone else, take it seriously. This is especially true if that person is showing other warning signs of violent behavior. In this case, especially if the threat is detailed or specific, get an adult involved as soon as possible. They can make the call on whether or not the threat of violence is serious.
“In every school, there are adults who are assigned to help students with issues of potential violence, but students should go to any adult they feel comfortable with,” says Nancy Grossman, school psychologist in the East Islip School District in New York. “If they don’t feel comfortable, they can enlist the help of friends or their parents and then tell someone at school together. Even reporting anonymously would be helpful.”
Be kind to everyone. It’s so powerful to say hello to someone else in the hallway who might be looking down or is considered an outcast or geek. You never know what a simple act of kindness will do to change someone’s outlook on life. —Karen, Butte, Montana
“Make sure that in every interaction you are treating the other person as [someone who has] thoughts and feelings that are valid, reasonable, and worth attention.” —Hannah, Boston, Massachusetts
Nancy Grossman, MS. School psychologist, East Islip School District. East Islip, NY.
Randy Ross, MS, MA. Senior consultant, National School Climate Center.
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