December 11, 2018
Student Voice Team School Safety Testimony
NASIM: Thanks so much for the opportunity to present today. As you know since you also granted me space as a member of the Working Group itself, my name is Nasim Mohammadzadeh, and I’m a junior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School.
Joining me are my colleagues Krasimir Staykova, a sophomore from Dunbar, and Ashley Barnette, a senior from Lafayette High School. We are all members of the Student Voice Team, a self-selected group of about 100 middle school, high school and college students from across Kentucky who work as partners to improve our public schools.
We are here today because we wanted to share back some Kentucky student perspectives about school safety, and we wanted to make the case for why, when it comes to ensuring it, we students can and must be partners in finding and implementing solutions.
For many Kentucky students growing up in the shadow of Heath, Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook, recent events have made it feel as though our schools are under siege.
And this was true even before school shootings took the lives of seventeen students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and two at Marshall County High School, right here in our home state.
Several months prior to these tragedies, the Student Voice Team conducted a school climate survey at three geographically-diverse Kentucky high schools. Of the 1552 students responding then, 47% reported that they worried about violence at their school and 19% said that they did so frequently. But since the Benton and Parkland shootings, many of us have been on extra edge–with real gun confiscations, social media scares, precautionary lockdowns, and even metal detectors to screen students as we walk into what is intended to be a loving and learning environment. Sixteen-year-old Bree Owen from Daviess County High School shared a common sentiment: “I feel scared, but also frustrated,” she told us. “Usually when we get threats, it’s written on walls or sent over texts, then extended into rumors that make their way throughout everyone. It gets to the point where I don’t know what I should be scared about and what I shouldn’t.”
National and local conversations about school safety since Parkland have focused on what to do about weapons: how to “harden the target” or tighten building security, how to arm teachers, and how to reduce access to guns. And as a response to mass school shootings, this may make some sense.
But while mass school shootings are on the rise, they are exceedingly rare in schools. Acclaimed criminologist James Fox who has been studying mass shootings for decades told National Public Radio that there’s an average of about one mass school shooting a year — in a country with more than 100,000 schools.
Furthermore, the Northeastern University professor explained, the overall number of gunshot victims at schools has decreased over the years. According to Fox’s numbers, back in the 1992-93 school year, about 0.55 students per million were shot and killed; in 2014-15, that rate was closer to 0.15 per million.
Contrast the scope with the Centers for Disease Control survey showing that over 20% of high school students report having been bullied on school property and nearly 8% report having been in a physical fight there.
These facts do not diminish the horrific experience students, families, and communities affected by school shootings endure. But they also suggest the conversation we are having about how to make students feel safer must get beyond guns.
We need to talk about school climate and the relationships students have with each other and with adults in school as well as the norms, goals, values and nature of education that make school a place where students from a wide range of backgrounds can love learning and feel safe, welcome, and loved themselves.
KRASIMIR: When it comes to policy-making about school safety and climate, students can offer real value-add to that conversation.
Many of you on this panel already know that a wave of gun threats and confiscations shook students and staff in Lexington this past spring. You also are no doubt aware from Superintendent Manny Caulk’s earlier testimony that in the wake of these incidents, Fayette County Public Schools passed a school safety tax, generating over $13 million dollars to mitigate school violence.
As it turns out, Dunbar High School–where I and a cluster of our members attend–is one of the very first schools in the state to implement the harder elements of what soon may become the norm of school safety approaches throughout Kentucky. In the last few weeks, my classmates and I have experienced the implementation of metal detectors, mandatory identification badges, daily bag searches, and an increased presence of school police officers. That means that when it comes to some of the proposals presented to the School Safety Working Group over the past few months, we Dunbar students are in a unique position to tell you exactly how they may play out in other schools. So what do we know and how do we know it, exactly? Great questions!!
Over the last two weeks, members of our team at Dunbar created and distributed a survey to the student population asking questions about the recent policies and shifts in school climate. We received responses from over 600 students who paint an interesting picture of the impact of the new measures. Among the highlights:
7.1% of responding students said that they actually felt less safe after the new policies were implemented, and 19.2% reported still feeling unsafe. In response to an open-ended question, one of those students explained the feeling this way: “Before the metal detectors, the idea of violence at school never crossed my mind. Now, it feels like it’s going to happen, and we’re just waiting for it.”
We also learned that just over 40% of the Dunbar students who responded felt that the new procedures were simply unnecessary for school safety. “I think that we should have hired more teachers instead of getting metal detectors,” one student told us, echoing what we heard from many of his peers. Most frequently, students said they felt that the funding for metal detectors should have gone to better educational supplies, like textbooks or more mental health professionals.
Also interesting to note: In 6.3% of the responses we received, the words jail or prison were used to describe the shift in the school’s atmosphere. One frustrated student commented that the new atmosphere is “more like going into a prison and being searched and restricted, with no way out.” Underscoring the point, albeit a little less delicately, another student put it this way: “Welcome to Dunbar Penitentiary.”
The feedback we heard from Dunbar students does not necessarily undermine the decision to add metal detectors to our school building. Rather, it suggests that the adults who are making these decisions might do better in ensuring a smoother implementation by first communicating with students about the why’s behind them.
That we now are expected to arrive at school up to 45 minutes earlier than we did before the addition of metal detectors, that many of us girls feel routinely mortified when our bags with sanitary supplies are searched, and that we must regularly subject ourselves to security staff asking us awkward questions about our hair, grades, and lunch first thing in the morning seem to merit at least a conversation.
ASHLEY: From what we are hearing from students at Dunbar and other youth across the state, students and the public at large could benefit a great deal from a broader understanding of school safety.
As Ron Avi Astor, a specialist in school violence from the University of Southern California explains, when it comes to school safety, we must also look at preventative care. Astor’s research shows that the students who bring guns to schools are the students who most frequently report being ostracized or bullied themselves. It also suggests that if we can address student marginalization sooner, we have a much better shot at stemming school violence later.
The assertion is backed by more than 4,400 experts around the country who signed a statement last February affirming that when it comes to school safety, these types of preventative changes are key. As our team articulated from the steps of the Capitol at a rally we held there last spring, the logic and the research follow that we need to take pre-emptive actions in making our learning communities more welcoming and hospitable, rather than reacting after tragedy has already struck. And if student disconnection with school is an early warning sign of the potential to lash out later, then it appears we have a lot of work to do.
Remember our student-led school climate audits and their information about how worried Kentucky students are about school violence? Turns out they are yielding even more relevant feedback about what it means to feel safe and included in school.
Of the 1,552 students responding to our school climate survey, only 32 percent of students reported feeling that they are valued members of the school community. Also, a mere 47 percent felt they had a strong relationship with their teachers. And just 31 percent felt attentive and invested in what they learned in school.
These numbers suggest that too many Kentucky students are eking out their education in a negative school climate. Feeling excluded, isolated and disengaged characterizes their experience in school. This is especially problematic to those of us wanting to ensure all students can learn at high levels, as there is a direct correlation between a positive school climate and academic achievement. And further, the research shows, a positive school climate is essential to healthy youth development. A preventative approach means we must consider things like our discipline policies. Are they constructive, rehabilitative, and fairly administered?
We also must evaluate students’ mental health, so they can get the support they need and ensure that school counselors–who each average an impossible caseload of 244 students in Kentucky–are better resourced and less overwhelmed. And we must build the capacity in both young people and adults to support each other socially and emotionally.
What this means is that instead of talking exclusively about hardening our schools, we need to also be talking about softening them.
Fortunately, as student activists in Kentucky and around the country are demonstrating at this moment, young people are ready to help lead the charge. In our own ranks alone, students like Allison Tu and Will Powers from Dupont Manual and Somerset High Schools respectively, launched StAMINA, a youth-led nonprofit dedicated to improving mental health research and advocacy in Kentucky schools. Craft Academy’s Jack Bradley, one of our members with autism, inspired JackBeNimble, a nonprofit dedicated to closing the empathy gap among students with disabilities and their peers, and to ensure that more students feel connected and supported in school. And Keaton Conner, one of our members who survived Marshall County’s school shooting, has organized intergenerational public rallies to question easy gun access among minors.
These four are among others on our team who have written op-eds and spoken across the state and country about their research and advocacy related to improving school climate and are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of student potential.
NASIM: Our Dunbar High School analysis, our student-led climate audits, and our experiences attending high school ourselves at a time of heightened fear over gun violence in our schools may not make us experts on the subject of school safety, but we believe that at the least, these experiences have granted us some informed opinions on the topic.
We heard that at last week’s Kentucky’s Board of Education meeting, members discussed that though there is great value in ensuring a positive school climate, there is a lack of certainty around how to measure it. So as the Board now considers some school climate measurement tools, it is our hope they will learn from other states who are successfully doing this work.
According to the Learning Policy Institute, forty-five states have found ways to incorporate a school climate indicator in their statewide accountability systems. In doing so, many of these states are recognizing that soliciting regular feedback from students about our school climates can go a long way in making school work for more of us.
If you take nothing else away from our presentation today, we hope it is simply this: listening to student feedback about our education experience–including but also beyond academic life–very much in the way you are doing now by sharing this platform with us today–can do so much to ensure many more of us feel physically, emotionally, and socially safe in school.
The Kentucky Student Voice Team is a statewide organization of young people who are co-creating more just, democratic Kentucky schools & communities as research, policy & advocacy partners.
It was founded in 2012 at the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, an independent, nonpartisan, citizen-led organization working to improve education in Kentucky—early childhood through postsecondary. Since 2021, KSVT has been an independent organization.
Ashley is a former member of KSVT.