Building a Safe School Community
Ken Havill – Principal of Western Springs College
The Prime Minister has asked boards for an assurance that schools are doing everything expected of them to provide students with a safe physical and emotional environment, and, in particular, to deal with bullying.
Building a Sense of Community
We have aspired to be a safe school in the eyes of our community for many years. Building and maintaining a school climate wherein students feel safe has been a work in progress for a long time, at least since Jim Peters took over as principal in the mid-1980s. Clearly, it is not a five minute fix; the development and maintenance of a safe school culture is an ongoing process which requires regular self review, enlightened programme delivery, constant vigilance and much plain, hard work.
Creating a peaceful school atmosphere in which resort to violence, aggression or intimidation is not the norm begins with the values and principles espoused by the school and, more importantly, lived each day by the staff. Our cornerstone is respect: all interactions between teachers and students need to be respectful. There is no doubt that the quality of teacher-student relationships has a direct influence on how students relate to each other.
The strength of belief in and commitment to relating to others respectfully is likely to be a reflection of how power is used in the school. A truly democratic institution in which leadership is shared, everyone has a voice, and which takes care to arrive at consensual decisions is likely to make for a more cohesive school community. Clearly, our cohesiveness as a school community arises from the shared beliefs which draw us together.
The relevance of building community has everything to do with the degree to which we are likely to be motivated to act as our brother’s or sister’s keeper. If we share a genuine concern for others in our community, we are more likely as teachers to understand our obligation to be alert to signs of harassment and more likely as students to recognise the importance of telling about it when it is observed.
We need to create conditions conducive to telling. Firstly, we need to acknowledge the courage students require to tell. We emphasise that it is safe to tell at our school. We recognise that we must deal with the fear of recrimination reinforcing the code of silence. We stress that, if students confide information in us, we will receive it confidentially. We tell students, “Trust us to take care to protect your anonymity. Our track record means that we have earned your confidence and trust. You will not lose control of how the information is used. You need not feel isolated, exposed or vulnerable. ”
Students are also told that, once a case has reached the office of the deputy principal or the principal, subsequent threats of reprisal for telling will be dealt with as being more serious than the original offence. In our experience this form of intimidation is rare at our school.
There are a wide range of school structures, programmes and processes which contribute to the building of a safer, more cohesive community. These include:
- Vertical form classes comprising 4-5 students from each level wherein senior students look out for their juniors
- A form class initiative to raise awareness of the different forms of bullying and to share perceptions of the impact on victims
- A peer support orientation programme featuring small group activities involving Year 9 and Year 13 students
- The house leadership and management of deans, student leaders and form teachers who encourage collective participation in house and inter-house activities and school events
- The learning centre-led Year 13 peer mentoring programme targeting Year 9 students at risk of failure
- The Peer Sexuality programme designed to facilitate referrals for expert advice and guidance
- A health education curriculum which focuses on harassment, individual assertiveness and community action
- A proactive approach to guiding students in the responsible use of social network technologies.
- The holistic approach to adolescent health and the highly interventionist policies of the health centre counselling and health staff team
- A comprehensive behaviour management system which clearly specifies roles and responsibilities and which is oriented towards facilitating consistency and predictability
- Senior managers and deans who use stand-downs and suspensions as potentially constructive rather than punitive processes
- A Board Disciplinary Committee which believes in giving offenders a second chance where possible but which prioritises the safety of other students
- A biennial school self review process (Quality of Service Delivery survey) which elicits the views of students, teachers and parents concerning school safety issues and which feeds into annual planning and annual reporting at senior manager and trustee level
Give It The Time And Attention It Needs
Our approach is underlined by a strong belief in the seriousness and total unacceptability of all forms of violence, verbal and physical. The test of the strength of this belief and our commitment to it is always how we respond whenever it occurs. The true test is the amount of time and energy we are prepared to invest in dealing with it. Middle and senior managers always have a long list of competing and compelling demands. Dealing well with matters such as bullying requires a willingness to prioritise student safety above all else. It is likely to mean that attending promptly to other significant and pressing matters has to be postponed.
Our response to incidents of bullying is motivated by a determination to intervene in a way that ensures the harassment stops rather than to drive it further underground. One non-punitive approach is to work with a carefully selected peer group whose members show solidarity with the victim and actively thwart the bullying. If the bullying is confined to an individual, a mediated solution can be effective. If the bullying continues or transfers to another victim following intervention, as occurred in a recent case, the outcome may have to be suspension followed by exclusion.
Our mission statement speaks about equipping young people to make a contribution to the building of a just society. This work starts in our own school where we make a commitment to our parents to do everything possible to provide a safe campus for their sons and daughters. Mobilising the school community in support of this aspiration is certainly achievable.