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School safety skills and self-awareness of future teachers (opinion)

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The Uvalde school shooting has reignited concerns among educators about school violence and pushed the conversation about school safety back to the forefront of media coverage and legislative agendas. There are still active shooting situations in schools, according to the federal Center for National Defense and Security School Shooting Database, remain rare, passive shooter incidents are steadily increasing, contributing to safety concerns in our nation’s K-12 schools. This surge in school safety anxiety and the associated mental and emotional consequences for students and faculty is something that higher education must step up and take the lead in addressing.

As colleges and universities train future educators, safety protocols and concerns about school safety should be top of mind for stakeholders across the country. These security practices include prevention and response and require a system-wide approach to training, team planning, and full-scale expertise to implement. This work begins before an educator even sets foot in a school building, and it is absolutely imperative that curricula at the higher education level prepare future educators with the knowledge, self-awareness, and skills related to K-12 school safety and security.

The University of Montana College of Education, where I teach counselor education, has training programs for teachers, administrators, and school counselors that do just that.

In collaboration with the National Children’s Trauma Center (NNCTC), also located in the College of Education, we are also in the early stages of planning to create and implement a trauma certificate that spans its departments and centers, offering current students and community members the opportunity to seek additional professional development in required and optional options for performing certificate assignment. Although the college is awaiting the results of the certificate’s feasibility study, teachers are already bringing relevant topics into their classrooms.

For example, in ethics and politics classes, students repeatedly talk about school safety and school shootings. In the K-12 Leadership course, students are tasked with understanding the importance of the role of the school counselor in relation to school safety, as well as the role of the school counselor. In the facilities course, students consider physical security as they work on building security issues. In the counseling department, all students are required to take a course called Risk and Resilience, which addresses trauma, crisis, and grief in school, community, and clinical settings. This course covers escalation and de-escalation cycles, crisis response/teams, and valuable resources for standard response protocols and emergency operations planning such as I love you guys and Crisis Prevention Institute.

In addition to NNCTC, the college supports the Montana Safe Schools Center (MSSC), whose mission is entirely dedicated to school safety, both physical and emotional. The MSSC, which I lead, offers training to schools, community members, and interested students on active shooter training, threat assessment, suicide assessment, scene assessment, and more. As school safety continues to be a priority, MSSC is in a position to offer these trainings to teacher trainees at the College of Education. Even with all that is being done at the University of Montana, more is still needed.

In the last one Inside the higher ed and College Pulse Student Voice survey, sponsored by Kaplan, asked higher education students about their perceptions of safety in their educational environment. Of the 2004 respondents, 94 have an education. Interestingly, these prospective teachers were less concerned than the full sample about the possibility of a shooting on campus.

However, I have noticed a growing nervousness in direct response to active shooter tragedies like Uvalde. As a Counselor Educator, I meet trainee school counselors who experience anxiety and fear related to the climate of their practice, particularly those from marginalized groups (BIPOC, LGTBIQ+) who are less recognized and supported by their school and community. Through the Montana Center for Safe Schools, I am seeing more and more schools requesting training related to threat and location assessments and active shooter situations. This is important work for teachers, who must be prepared not only to maintain physical safety in their classrooms, but also to manage the anxiety that many of their students feel about it (as well as themselves).

In determining how best to prepare our future educators for school safety issues, we must also consider how K-12 students perceive safety in their school. One of the sources of this information is Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), held twice a year for high school students across the country, which examines various health, safety and risk behaviors. In Montana, for example, over the past decade, a student there were fewer reports of weapons being carried at school while a student reports of perceived lack of security have increased.

While physical safety remains a priority for all stakeholders in schools, more energy and resources need to be spent on emotional safety and well-being in schools. In addition to the preventive practices of site assessments, threat assessments, emergency operations planning, crisis response teams, and so on, training programs for school leaders and teachers should consider the well-being of staff and students in the larger arena of school climate.

As I watch districts and states cut funding and mandates for school counselors, school psychologists, and other mental health professionals, I am deeply concerned about how these decisions negatively impact school safety, real and perceived. Specifically, school counselors work with all students, staff, and families to influence school climate by influencing the safety and well-being systems that allow students to access education. By reducing the number of school counselors, students have less access to these specially trained mental health professionals, reducing academic success and safety in one fell swoop.

However, when people feel safe, when people feel in control, when people have the resources they need to make informed decisions, then we see reduced anxiety and fear, reduced feelings of insecurity, and reduced threats of violence. This is where teaching in K-12 schools and higher education programs should begin.

Training programs should address perceptions of schools as unsafe environments, focusing on staff and student well-being, supportive school climates, and school-wide prevention practices. By addressing these perceptions systematically, people will feel safer at school and their perceptions will be closer to reality in this capacity. Perceived lack of safety increases anxiety and fear, while increased perceived safety will reduce anxiety and fear.

When students feel more secure, when they perceive their environment as safe, they are neurologically more likely to absorb and retain new information. This phenomenon also applies to their teachers; when teachers feel more secure, they are more willing to teach and support their students’ learning. A key component of this is not actual safety, whether related to acts of school violence or not. Rather, it is the perception of safety in the school environment that needs to be addressed and prioritized.

More information about Student Voice safety and security: Students feel mostly safe on campuses, but not to the same extentand Student safety wishes: Visible safety, brighter walkways, more crime prevention.

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