The inspiring response from youth, staff, and families in our schools after the Parkland, Fla., shooting reminds us that effective public policy requires the insights and expertise of those most affected by these policies.
So many of these incidents with gun violence are sadly impacting youth directly. We want change, and who is better positioned to let adults know the social dynamic in schools than youth? This generation cares not only about our physical safety, but the continued elevation of student voices. It shouldn't take more than one incident to see a need for change.
When we discuss safety in our schools, our public institutions need transparent and consistent ways to gather student and teacher perspectives. They can both define the real problems we face and guide our communities to address them.
This work starts with listening to the staff in schools who can speak directly to the behavioral needs of our children. Our students come from diverse backgrounds. For some, experiences of violence can become normalized, creating a constant state of defensiveness. We must provide supports for students impacted by psychological trauma, which is often expressed as anger, withdrawal and desensitization to violence.
Trauma and mental health issues affect children across Hamilton County, and our solutions must focus on promoting equity. That will take a commitment to ensuring that resources are distributed in ways that address the needs of each child. The only way to do this is to listen to those in our schools.
Currently, state legislators are debating HB 2208 and its amendments that would allow teachers and school staff to carry concealed firearms in schools. This bill proposes giving the decision to arm teachers over to individual school districts. This legislation has not effectively taken in student and teacher voices about their own choice for school environments and what makes them feel safe. Their voices matter the most in this debate and should always be given a prioritized seat at the table about any change in policy.
While the proposed state bill was not written with much community input, it is encouraging that Hamilton County Schools is taking steps to get community input before making decisions. There is not one decisive solution for keeping our students and teachers safe, but there are many measures that can be taken before we resort to adding more weapons. Improved building security is in the works, and that's a hopeful start. We should also implement measures so students and staff are armed with ways to identify and support troubled youth before they act out inappropriately or aggressively. We have a beautiful opportunity for us to come together and create a collaborative solution that will keep our schools safe places for learning, creativity, and growth.
One of the top 10 policy platform priorities that resulted from UnifiEd's grassroots organizing effort, the APEX Project, was that students and teachers must have a voice in the issues that matter to them to support better relationships and engagement.
We believe the following recommendations can be taken up by all of our public and private institutions to ensure that we are authentic in this effort:
1. Connect with students and teachers. Students and teachers need to have a seat at the policy-making table. Administration and local government should collaborate with the community and school-wide student and teacher organizing efforts to link the expertise and opinions of those experiencing school every day to affect local change.
2. Prioritize equity through data collection. We need to understand the diverse ideas and needs across our county in relationship to school safety. All surveys or community listening opportunities should record participants' demographic, geographic, and role information. We cannot understand the complexity of safety issues, nor provide personalized solutions, without understanding who is sharing their ideas.
3. Get creative. There are currently fragmented efforts to implement restorative justice practices in our schools as an alternative to punitive disciplinary practices. Let's take this a step further and open community-wide discussions about what defines justice and safety as well as the most effective methods to achieve them.
4. Be transparent in how community data is analyzed by public and private institutions to inform decision-making. Too often, our ideas disappear into a Google form or paper survey. By showing how we use community ideas, we move past tokenized efforts to "listen" and toward true accountability.
Written by Reginald Gilmore, behavioral specialist, Orchard Knob Elementary; Jaime Peterson, education assistant, Brainerd High School; Rachel Ruano, student, Ooltewah High School; Alexa LeBoeuf, director of community engagement and design, UnifiEd; Alea Tveit, policy research assistant, UnifiEd, in honor of the lives lost in Parkland and the young lives lost every day to gun violence.