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Sunday, July 21 News

In the Suburbs / A new outlook on school saftey

We started our new academic year this week at the Bridgeport charter school where I have worked since 2013. In the early days, while my title was teaching assistant, I wore many hats — teacher, writing coach, building substitute, early morning office assistant, to name a few.

One year, I filled in for a teacher who left and taught nine weeks of social studies and history. I have always loved the diversity of our student population and teaching staff, and I have consistently found the environment to be nurturing, compassionate and accepting of cultural differences. Most of all, I believe our middle and high schools are safe.

The students who attend know that when they arrive in the morning until the last bell rings, their physical, emotional and intellectual safety will be protected. Safety is part of our charter and both faculty and administrators go out of their way to practice it all the time.

Until this year, I have probably taken safety for granted and may have been too complacent. While I know that some students in our school have seen dangerous situations well beyond their middle and high school years, we’ve gone out of our way to provide a secure, academic place for all students.

But ever since the Parkland, Fla., massacre, safety has taken on a whole new meaning. Suddenly, those 17 victims weren’t nurtured and protected, and a person known to teachers and students alike brought the violence of the streets into the safe haven of a school and stole lives.

But ever since that tragedy, students from Parkland and across the country have been fighting back and demanding the return of a safe school environment. And their words are resonating.

This year, unlike any of my five previous years, I paid very close attention to the principal’s discussion about values, especially those having to do with safety. It wasn’t that I didn’t care in my early days at this school. I didn’t care enough.

Perhaps I was preoccupied with my paraprofessional assignments and thought safety was already a well-established practice here at school. Or perhaps because we had a terrific group of students and we were a collegial and supportive faculty, I lulled myself into believing that our school was insulated against violence and murder.

So this week, when the principal talked during our professional development sessions about the various kinds of safety we must practice at our school, I listened and I took notes. More importantly, I thought deeply about my own role in keeping our school safe this year. I thought about my own vulnerability and about the “what ifs,” which have become increasingly real.

For instance, I asked myself if I’ve been too cavalier during practice lockdowns. Have I overlooked dangerous shelter areas in classrooms where a shooter could see students? Was I too lenient with some students who really weren’t following lock-down protocols? And I wondered, “What if one day a shooter, disgruntled with one of my colleagues or with another student, decided to break into our building?”

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Would I move fast enough to help overpower the person? Could I get to the classrooms fast enough to sound an alarm? What would I do?

But the potential for violence was only one area of safety — physical safety — that was part of our professional development session this week. The principal also spoke about emotional safety, where students actually need to feel safe in any part of the school and where their teachers are playing a pivotal role in making that safety happen.

I plan to think about emotional safety more than ever this year in my work as a paraprofessional. The two students who are my responsibility need to always feel safe both in and out of their classrooms.

The last kind of safety the principal discussed was intellectual safety, where students should not have to be afraid to give an answer, even if it may not be the right answer; disagree with another student’s opinion or take a stand as the lone dissenter in a discussion. Once again, the responsibility for creating that kind of safe haven lies with the educator. That commentary gave me a lot of food for thought.

I reflected about what I had learned and how I can apply it to my role as nurturer and provider throughout this year. I will be shadowing two seniors, trying to create a safe emotional and intellectual environment for them, while always keeping in mind their physical safety. As an educator, creating that positive, safe environment for these and all our students is totally my responsibility.