Having been an educator much of my life and attended a lot of school, there is something powerful in my somatic memory about this time of year. It’s a swirling dervish of anticipation, hope... fear, trepidation.
It all collides tightly in my belly.
I recall the many years of being up early on the first day of school, staring at my toast and jam as nausea rolled through me like short waves - cresting and breaking.
I remember standing at the bus stop with my hair parted strictly down the middle, pulled taut at the scalp by two braided pigtails. I can still feel the sensation of my doile fringed cotton socks bunching under the heels of my new patent leather shoes. Sweat moistened my palms as the bus approached.
Everything in my body saying, “Here I go again”- Whitesnake style.
I wasn’t bullied at school nor had any particularly traumatic experience that was school related.
It was just the novelty of a new school year - it revved my inner experience. That’s normal; novelty is often experienced as stress in the body.
My son just began his first year of high school. Somehow his beginning is mine too.
But his beginning has a new dimension, a novel element mine didn’t - concern for his safety.
This new dimension is echoing - everywhere.
Last night, I received a message from an old friend in Texas. She is wondering if I can provide training in her district about trauma and building safety in the school environment.
A year ago, she relocated from England to Texas with her husband and three children and just yesterday, one of her biggest fears materialized. Monday she received an email from the high school principal chronicling the nature of two school shooter threats (unrelated) at the high school her daughter attends. In the email, the principal assured parents that the students guilty of making these threats will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, but that provides little comfort.
My friend is outraged and terrified and I don’t blame her.
Today, the capturing front page headline of our local paper is The New Reality of School Safety. The article details how the local district felt prepared to address the threat it encountered last year when a high school student posted a picture on Snapchat featuring another student holding a gun in each hand, with the caption: “Don’t go to school Wednesday.”
Yes, those students were held accountable; they were expelled and some faced criminal charges.
But the problem remains - these postventions actions don’t prevent new threats from surfacing by other students nor do they address the underlying issues that give rise to these threats in the first place.
Yesterday NHPR aired an in depth interview with criminologist and researcher, James Silver. Silver’s research confirms much of what I know to be true.
First, most active shooters have a “grievance” to air, a “score” to settle.
Second, the most effective way to de-escalate these individuals is to know who they are, to care about their story, to provide them support, and to remain vigilant in that support.
And the only way to build that kind of connection as a prevention strategy is by establishing and prioritizing relational safety first.
What Do We Mean When We Use the Word “Safety”
Last week, I was driving in the car listening to NHPR. They were reporting on a recent convening of school resource officers in preparation for the new school year. The theme of their conference - school safety.
In 2018, NH published a report on school safety and preparedness. Within the first pages is the bold subtitles of school shootings and disrupting the pathways to school violence. The report reads as a law enforcement guide. The publication is chalk full of information about incident command centers, psychological profiles of school shooters, and risk assessment protocols. This guide is not about cultivating a felt sense of safety. This guide is about securing and protecting a school environment.
I remember reviewing the publication with my trauma-informed lenses. I found myself shaking my head often. I kept thinking, “we misuse the word ‘safety.”
And it matters.
Dr. Stephen Porges, distinguished scientist and the person responsible for The PolyVagal Theory says,
“The important role of ‘safety’ in our life is so intuitive and so relevant that it is surprising that our institutions neglect it. Perhaps our misunderstanding of the role of safety is based on an assumption that we know what safety means. This assumption needs to be challenged, because there may be an inconsistency between the words we use to describe safety and our bodily feelings of safety.”
Distinctions in the Language We Use
Some may wonder, “why does it matter if we interchangeable use the terms safety, security, and protection?” It matters because the cues of relational safety are distinct and separate from cues of security or protection.
The irony is that in all the measures we take to ensure “safety” - locked doors, bullet proof glass, metal detectors, armed resource officers - we remind our bodies that we are facing imminent threat. The more we collectively experience threat, the more likely people defense mobilize against one another.
In other words, the very things we are doing to protect ourselves may be creating the unintended consequence of generating more contagious threat.
The measures we take to secure or protect ourselves may indicate to our conscious mind that we are protected but they are screaming at our primitive brain, “you’re in danger!”
Cultivating A Felt Sense of Safety in Our Schools
If we want to provide a felt sense of safety and trust for our children, we have to prioritize the cultivation of relationships in the classroom, attend to the needs of our bodies during class time, and engage a different mindset when interpreting student behavior.
We must remember that we evolved for thousands of years as nomadic tribes not governed by laws or mutually agreed upon behavioral expectations. When we encountered an unknown tribe, we needed abundant cues of safety that inspired peace and cooperation. We still need those same cues today.
We accomplish this by being highly attuned to the student(s) that appears quiet, sullen, angry, outraged, isolated, or just generally disconnected. We have to make a concerted effort to offer a felt sense of safety for that kid.
Does that mean we have to pay close attention to the vast majority of adolescent students and the answer is “yes!”
- Share a joke (that’s funny).
- Flash a smile and a cheerful greeting when they enter the class. “Good to have you with us today.”
- Invite the student to share lunch with you.
- Lead your class in activities and exercises that regulate the body and build connections.
- Facilitate meaningful dialogue in class - pay particular attention to equity in turn-taking and encourage high social sensitivity
- Be human; share your feelings
- Share power - provide your students with as much say as possible in how you run your class -
- Co-create norms to govern behavioral expectations
In my mind, the only silver lining in all of this is that it is no longer optional to prioritize a felt sense of safety in school.
It’s become a mortal imperative.