What Does School Safety Look Like? Protect Whole Child Approaches in Education that Promote Child Safety, Success, and Well-Being
By Daisha Williams, CDF-Ohio Summer Intern
What does it mean to feel safe in school?
I remember in high school, there were soon-to-be graduates a couple grades above me ordering their caps and gowns for graduation in May. Our school carried traditions for graduation that girls wore the lighter school color cap and gown, and boys would wear the darker. For Thurgood Marshall High School in Dayton, Ohio, these colors were purple and gold. Thinking back, some could see my then-principal as strict, but more importantly she provided a caring environment for all her students. I first came to see this during that time before my peers’ high school graduation, when she allowed all non-cisgendered students (those who did not identify with their gender assigned at birth) to wear whichever color they preferred for their own gender expression. This caring accommodation was not a special privilege. There was no discrimination, and it didn’t mean she was lax in any of the rules either. one thing that was indeed certain was that if you were to wear gold, you wore all white with white shoes and for those wearing purple, you wore black dress shoes, black slacks, and a white dress shirt. Now that dress code could not be compromised (and is probably one of the reasons why my peers were more likely to point out her more stringent qualities).
All her strictness aside though, this is an example of how school policies can make students feel safe in school in more aspects than just physical safety, and it is the type of policy that should be promoted in schools. This is what Ohio’s Whole Child Framework and strategic plan for education, Each Child Our Future, seek to promote; accepting students as they are and not only allowing them to be themselves in a building where their growth and development will be cultivated but encouraging and finding small ways to make them feel seen.
I am proud of the strides taken in recent years by the State Board of Education and Ohio Department of Education leadership to appeal to every student’s unique interest, reaching out to multiple people in a student’s ecosystem to craft these guiding frameworks for Ohio’s education system. It acknowledges that it truly takes a village to raise children to their highest potential. It shows that schools do more for children and is based on research, testimony from parents, children, and school faculty.
Ohio’s five-year strategic plan, Each Child Our Future, was launched in 2019 to ensure each student is highly prepared for their future by meeting their needs in multiple aspects of life so that they can sustain themselves and be able to enter the adult world with a plan for success. The purpose of this initiative is to “lift aspirations, create hope and excitement, guide development of state-level education policies, and promote high quality education practices across the state.” The plan features three core principles, four learning domains, and 10 priority strategies that call on all levels of the school system to support the child and lead to a successful outcome. One of the strategies laid out in the plan is working together with parents, caregivers, and community partners to help schools meet the needs of the whole child. It calls for children to be healthy, physically and emotionally safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. Moreover, it critically acknowledges and seeks to mitigate many gaps in opportunity and disparities among children and how these interfere with student performance.
Unfortunately, our school children are facing many challenges to their overall wellbeing, safety, and success. For instance, in 2020, Ohio saw the highest year for unintentional drug overdose deaths with 5,017 deaths, 25% increase compared to the last year. In 2020, almost 423,000 children lived in poverty in the state. A 2020-2021 OHYES! Survey, found that 30% of school-age students stated they experienced emotional abuse and 7% experience physical abuse, 32% felt sad and hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row during the past year, 15% considered suicide, 43% never saw a healthcare provider for a mental health problem, and nearly 30% experience household mental illness. These numbers and statistics only touch some of the hurdles students face while still having to manage the demands and classwork that comes with being in the classroom.
However, with bills like HB151: Save Women’s Sports Act recently passed by the Ohio House, HB99 just signed into law by Governor DeWine to arm Ohio teachers in school buildings, HB616 and many more, progress made to promote student safety and whole child well-being is in jeopardy. It begs the question of how Ohio’s children will feel safe in schools if their own identities do not align with the decisions being made by the General Assembly or the Governor. Safety goes far beyond the physical, especially in buildings where children’s growth into adulthood is inevitable. To be safe in school is to be emotionally safe with resources and psychologists present for all students where full expression of race, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity is not just tolerated but encouraged in school buildings and at all levels of society. Students must also be ensured physical safety by a state government that adequately regulates assault rifles and prevents weapons from getting into the wrong hands in the first place, let alone in their school buildings.
How can the overall safety our children deserve be achieved with so many pieces of anti-child legislation gaining traction in our Statehouse? Each Child Our Future calls for each child to be in a school climate and culture that shows support and care from committed adults and empathetic peers, but this is made much more difficult in our current reality given the bill Governor DeWine just signed last week.
On June 13th, Governor DeWine signed House Bill 99 into law which allows school personnel to carry a concealed weapon with only 24 hours of training, just two of which that will be training with the firearm. This bill was introduced not even one week after the Uvalde school shooting in Texas that had 21 victims, 19 of which were children.
So far in 2022, at least 60 children have been shot throughout Ohio. Gun violence is a health crisis that threatens all Ohio children, and this crisis is only growing worse. The number of children who died from firearms in 2021 was 55% higher than in 2019. In 2021, 220 children in Ohio died from gun violence.
Further troubling considering this rising data, Ohio is now a constitutional carry state, meaning that if a person meets the age requirement and has no felonies, they can carry a concealed weapon with no training or permit required, making it now easier than ever to obtain a firearm.
All this when there have been far too many mass shooting incidents in Ohio in recent memory, notably with the shooting that took place in the Oregon District of Dayton, Ohio when a perpetrator fired 41 shots in just 30 seconds. Within these 30 seconds, nine people lost their lives and over a dozen others were injured.
Many of the victims of this shooting were loving parents, some of multiple children that will have to continue without their parent’s guidance and protection. What these families in Dayton and around the country in the aftermath of such tragedies need and are calling for alongside is real justice and state leaders who are willing to do what is right, even if it isn’t easy. What message does HB99 send to the victims’ children today, that instead of legislation that would make it more difficult for assault rifles to be purchased to decrease mass shootings, more weapons will be brought in settings where they will be going to school? HB99 is a coward’s way out of a crisis and an insult to the memory of so many who have lost their lives to this crisis.
In Ohio, the recently passed HB99 will allow school personnel to only participate in 24 hours of training. Consider this in contrast to what is required to become an educator in Ohio:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, college or university;
- Pass a content area exam(s) and professional knowledge exam;
- Pass a criminal background check;
- Apply for initial licensure for a four-year resident educator license through the Ohio; Department of Education; and
- Complete at least 100 clock hours of field experiences, along with the completion of full-time student teaching assignment lasting a minimum of 12 weeks.
Based on where you complete your education degree, the school may require you to complete more than 12 weeks of student teaching. In my case, I will be spending at least 6 months in the field student teaching my senior year to get my Bachelor of Science in Education degree. Why is the time, resources, effort, exams, qualifications necessary to carry a gun in the classroom – 24 hours – so incommensurate to what is necessary to become a teacher? Or even a police officer? In Ohio’s case, basic training consists of 600 hours of instruction delivered in 18 weeks of training. The recently retired commander of Columbus Police Department, Robert Meader, himself testified against this bill, calling the training to carry a firearm in a school building “woefully inadequate,” saying it would “cause harmful accidents and potentially even needless deaths.” Mr. Meader was one of hundreds who testified in opposition to this bill whereas only two speakers spoke in support of it during a committee meeting in late May when it was swiftly pushed to the House floor for a vote.
After the Parkland shooting in Florida, a 2019 national survey of nearly 3,000 teachers found that more than 95% of educators did not agree teachers should have guns in the classroom. Support is low among students, too. In a study conducted by the University of Missouri St. Louis, out of the 2,645 students asked, 80% did not support the arming of teachers, with female students and Black students being more likely to not approve. How can students in Ohio trust that they are in a physically safe learning environment when an educator with a firearm is at the front of the classroom with little training on how to use it?
With the teaching profession becoming more politicized, it has led to a decrease in public trust of teachers – 57% of Americans trust its teachers the survey found, down from 63% in 2019. Arming teachers would likely erode trust in educators further and harm student-teacher relationships that research shows improve student outcomes, both in terms of their academic and social-emotional learning. One high school principal interviewed regarding this survey says that what is taking place is “a facet of how politics and partisanship has been infiltrated into the classroom” and that when this happens, nobody wins. This can be seen in the public outrage against Critical Race Theory being taught in schools and how politicians have used this to turn voters and parents against schools for political gain. What is also being argued is transparency over curriculum and lesson plans so that parents can know what their children are learning, but of course, the reality is that the curriculum has always been available via home access resources for parents, at parent-teacher conferences, or contacting the teachers.
In August 2021, I personally emailed constituent affairs in the governor’s office to understand his stance on the manufactured crisis that is Critical Race Theory. The office responded the governor opposes it because “it divides, rather than unites, Americans” and concluded, “We should never shy away from teaching the good and bad of American history, but we should help our children appreciate what unites us rather than what divides us.” It is safe to assume that Governor DeWine would sign bills like HB616 into legislation with this opinion on Critical Race Theory. Bills like this threaten school culture and climate and jeopardize students’ psychological and emotional safety in their school buildings which will undermine academic progress.
HB616 censors learning on not only LGBTQ+ topics, but also diversity, equity, inclusion, race, sex, and other “divisive topics” under the nonsensical guise of how the bill will protect children from indoctrination. Not only is this bill hypocritical, but it erases the identity of the diverse student population that is growing in Ohio and is therefore a threat to how safe students can feel and their ability to learn and for their educators to meet them where they are, embracing of who they are. It makes children look at their history, culture, and heritage as divisive and that it does not belong in schools. These are the same schools that the government expects to produce self-sufficient children that will keep the workforce going; however, this bill will push children out of schools by making schools less inclusive spaces without the support systems students need to thrive and make them believe they do not belong. Not only will these “divisive topics” be banned, but books associated with these identities will not be allowed. In recent years, multiple books in school districts across the nation have been banned, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Dr. Maya Angelou, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Animal Farm by George Orwell, and more. well, and more.
The irony would be laughable if this nonsense weren’t so real: How can we trust teachers to complete another demand of holding a firearm in the classroom, the same classroom where we do not trust them to do their original job of teaching our children age-appropriate content? We need to let the research, data, evidence around what makes schools safer drive us in the direction towards what it means to keep our children safe and protect them from physical harm and mental trauma. Safety in schools looks like:
- Legislation that prohibits the purchase of automatic assault weapons that are only used for military use.
- Mental health resources available for both students and teachers and ways to address the school psychologist and counselor shortage by incentivizing students to feed this workforce pipeline.
- Health education standards for students in Ohio and prioritization of ample training and education for school personnel on implicit bias, equity, inclusion, and diversity
- A more rigorous and well-regulated process to obtain a firearm such as background checks, psychological evaluations, training, and concealed carry licenses as a requirement.
- Fairly and fully funding all Ohio public schools rather and correct issues in school funding deemed unconstitutional for over 20 years.
- Honesty in education rather than silencing the harsh realities of history that forces teachers to follow propaganda rather than catering to the educational needs of Ohio’s growing diverse student population.
- Representatives that advocate for the true physical, emotional, and mental safety of our children and are accountable to the will of the people.
Each Child Our Future gave us a step forward in creating a school climate that supports not only students but administrators and teachers, but with bills that directly attack our students mental, physical, and emotional safety being passed, supported, and introduced, this cannot be met for each student. We will not get ahead, we will not see a successful future in Ohio, if we continue taking two steps forward yet allow anti-child legislation to take us three steps back, deferring and denying our children the opportunities, advantages, and true safety they deserve.