Debra P. Wilson
Times are tense for schools. While they want their students to be well prepared for the coming years of the 21st century, there is an almost ceaseless anxiety caused by unrelenting news and data illustrating how children can get hurt — physically or emotionally. Beyond underscoring the challenges of providing physical safety, data also reveal our societal struggles with general well-being, including physical and mental health. Embracing the following five steps will help schools actively address the range of safety issues in their own communities for the long-term well-being of their students.
1. Understand your current physical risks and plan accordingly.
When parents send their children to school in the morning, they have a minimum expectation that their children will return in as good or better condition. This expectation, and the inevitable legal challenges that may result from not meeting it, should be every school’s baseline for care. Safety audits (see article in this issue titled "The Strategy of Safety") provide a way for schools to get a firm grasp of the range of risks within their walls. Some risks are inherent to the operation of any school, others can be specific to a school’s campus (e.g., the art room opens onto a roof deck) or its culture (e.g., all seniors must complete an overnight wilderness camping expedition).
Taking steps to identify these risks — what can be eliminated, what can be mitigated, and what should be embraced as essential to learning — gives schools the opportunity to address risks thoughtfully through their procedures, policies, adjustments to the physical plant, and insurance coverage.
2. Make the practices, policies, and procedures part of the school culture.
The systems schools put in place to keep students and staff safe are only as good as their implementation. Good policies, practices, and procedures should reflect the cultural expectation of the school, and vice versa. A school’s safety systems and culture allow schools to alleviate some risk by knowing how staff, students, and families will respond in various scenarios (e.g, in cases such as campus lockdowns due to emergencies, witnessing a child being abused by another staff member or parent, or bullying incidents during less supervised time such as on buses). However, if understanding these systems is not part of the cultural expectations of the school community, over time people either forget or, in the case of new employees and students, are never fully informed.
Keeping policies and practices fresh is important. It’s also important to discuss the rationale behind any given policy — the “why” — so that those implementing it truly understand how it fits into the school’s culture and vision. Schools can also create initial “buy-in” to these policies by having task forces tackle more difficult policies, such as those relating to technology communications with students. This process invites non-administrative staff to wrestle with both the pragmatic issues behind regulating communications, and the safety concerns behind them. In the future, these same individuals can serve as the discussion leaders when orienting and re-orienting staff both to the policies and the reasons behind them.
3. Have a vision for the psychological well-being of your students.
The psychological, emotional, technological, and physical expectations put on students are arguably more intense now than they have been for any previous generation. A recent mental-health survey of college students performed by the National Association of Mental Illness found the following:
o One in three students reported having experienced prolonged periods of depression.
o One in four reported having suicidal thoughts or feelings.
o One in seven reported engaging in abnormally reckless behavior.
o One in seven reported difficulty functioning at school due to mental illness.
Indeed, there has been a 400 percent increase in the use of antidepressants by adults from a study covering 1988–1994 compared to 2005–2008.
Giving students the tools they need to handle the tensions and tests in their lives is an important part of educating the whole student. Some schools address these skills and coping mechanisms by inculcating developmentally appropriate strategies into their curriculum through counselors, school chaplains, or other trained staff. Such work often involves addressing topics such as bullying, depression, anxiety, sexual health, and the challenges of living in a time of constant communication — particularly in middle school and beyond.
Whatever approach your school uses, this wellness vision should be a part of the comprehensive approach that the school offers its students. Indeed, doing so reinforces the culture of care that virtually all schools aim to maintain.
4. Give your students a healthy vision of their physical well-being.
The most recent data show that roughly one-third of American children and adolescents are overweight or obese. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted that schools play a crucial role in helping children and adolescents develop the twin lifelong habits of well-being: healthy eating and physical activity.
To this end, schools need to review the messages implied in their current food offerings and fitness regimens. Some independent schools are now investing more in the quality of their meals, starting school gardens, and re-visiting the home economics classes of old to teach students essential lessons about taking care of their bodies. On the physical fitness front, many schools are now embracing alternatives to the traditional sports team paradigm in an effort to get all students physically engaged and to help them develop lifelong habits of exercise.
5. Bring parents into the equation.
To have the desired impact on student well-being, parents must be a part of the school’s overall approach to safety and wellness. From a risk standpoint, parents need to understand the school’s culture of risk so that they are not surprised by the risk later. On wellness issues, home life and family expectations are very much a part of a student’s wellness profile. Schools must reach out to parents and engage them as partners in this work, whether through parent book groups, classes, parent and student discussion groups, or other means. Involving, or at least educating, the parents and being clear about the vision that the school holds for all students, is fundamental to the goal.
Physical safety and academic development are essential to a student’s success in school. However, good schools now understand that a quality education requires that schools help students develop habits of physical and psychological well-being. This will not only make them more engaged in their present school community, it will help guide them — and serve them well — in their adults lives to come.
National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Mental Illness Prolific among College Students: Parents Underestimate Prevalence, Preparedness of Students,” August 25, 2004.
“Antidepressant Use in Persons Aged 12 and Over: United States, 2005-2008,” NCHS Data Brief, No. 76, October 2011.
Bryan Toporek, “States Could Have 60 Percent Obesity Rate by 2030, Report Suggests,” Education Week blog,
“CDC, Recommended Community Strategies and Measurements to Prevent Obesity in the United States,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Vol. 58, July 24, 2009.