During a special session this past March, Wisconsin legislators allocated $100 million in grants for schools across the state to increase school safety features such as bulletproof glass, security cameras, and School Resource Officers (SROs). The Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Office of School Safety defined the “Advanced Security” portions of the grant to include things like increased mental health training, physical security enhancements, or other expenditures, while “Primary Security” was defined exclusively in terms of building fortification, security detail, and developments to safety plans.
But what does school safety really mean? When it comes to thinking about the health and wellbeing of our schools, safety turns out to be a fairly complicated word.
Dr. Katie Eklund, Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology at UW-Madison, emphasizes taking a balanced approach to school safety. “It is important for schools to focus on balancing psychological and physical safety. Recently, a lot of attention has been paid to implementing physical safety measures such as bulletproof glass and security cameras, often at the expense of considering students’ psychological safety. It is important that schools also consider important components such as teacher-student relationships and school climate, especially following school crisis events.”
Before coming to the UW, Eklund conducted research at the University of Arizona regarding the impact of School Resource Officers on school climate. “Because of all of the high profile school shootings we’ve seen, there has been an increase in funding for SROs across the country. However, it is important for school districts to consider the specific role of the SRO within schools. This includes training that helps to embed officers within the school community, as well as specific policy clarifications as to how officers will be involved in aspects such as school disciplinary procedures.”
Beyond upping security and physical safety in schools, attention must be paid to building community and healthy relationships within individual schools and districts in the form of mental health supports, programs meant to supplement education for students with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and investing in Restorative Practices.
Restorative Practices – more encompassing than the familiar term restorative justice – can be a key part of developing safer and healthier schools. Simply put, restorative justice revolves around repairing harm to relationships rather than punishing or assigning blame. According to the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP), Restorative Practices, then, “are a framework for building community and for responding to challenging behavior through authentic dialogue, coming to understanding, and making things right.” When it comes down to it, Restorative Practices work with strong relationships: building and preserving healthy community ties.
Examples of Restorative Practices include community circles, community service, peer juries, peer mediation, and programs or classes shaped with Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in mind.
Restorative Practices and adjacent behavioral support systems have gained more official traction within the past two decades as further research emerges on the importance of strong, positive school communities, and as more attention is paid to racial and socioeconomic opportunity gaps and the School-to-Prison Pipeline. While it becomes increasingly evident that punitive school environments don’t benefit students in the short or long term, a cultural shift from a compliance-based, punishment-oriented school structure is much easier said than done.
When asked about challenges or resistance that she’s encountered, Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) social worker Lonna Stoltzfus said that the biggest difficulties have to do with lack of familiarity and the time required to engage in these practices.
“There can sometimes be a bit of disconnect between what we think and what our default is when we move into everyday practices. This work is counter-cultural to some extent, enough that it takes a fair amount of work. Continuous work. It takes work to align ourselves with this different way of seeing relationships.”
Stoltzfus, who is a part of MMSD’s restorative practices team, also emphasizes a common misconception about restorative work: that it’s reactive. “It’s hard to think about restoring something that was never there in the first place,” she said.
Within MMSD, circles are a foundational process, used both proactively and responsively. Stoltzfus says there have been staff circles to explore racial biases, which are often long and intimate processes. Additionally, there have been circles to address events unfolding at a local and national level, as well as smaller circles designed to respond to specific behavioral issues.
Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) are state leaders when it comes to Restorative Practices. Drew deLutio, the Restorative Practices Coordinator for the district, says that MPS tends to be a leader in SEL across the board, exploring restorative practices since the early 2000s.
“In a lot of places, the emphasis is on reducing suspension, conflict resolution, etc. At MPS, the focus is on community building and relationship strengthening,” said deLutio. He echoes Stoltzfus, mentioning that this is so deeply important because it “creates a community one can return to.”
DeLutio, who has a teaching background, is concerned with teacher training and support. His work focuses on providing individual teachers with the resources they need to make immediate changes to their pedagogies.
“If you can change the mindset of two or three teachers, you can impact a large number of students,” he said. But he still sees the connections between this approach and systems-level changes. “There haven’t been a lot of teachers involved with implementation. But if we focus on giving teachers effective support, then more people will be doing it and systemic changes will be easier.”
While restorative practices may feel unfamiliar or countercultural to many who have been taught to see schools as compliance-based structures, deLutio pointed out that we’re surrounded by examples of restorative relationships. We just experience them in a different context.
“The most functional relationships in your life are characterized by tenets of restorative practices. Within a restorative practice, everyone brings something valuable a community. Everyone can contribute.”
For deLutio, a compliance-based education system sends the opposite message: not everyone’s values are acceptable-- only those that are in line with the system. He shared several powerful stories about seeing the effects of restorative practices in students-- seeing them open up and show parts of themselves when they begin to build positive relationships with teachers and staff through community circles or SEL programs.
“We need to stop excluding kids or denying kids access to school because they misbehave,” he said. “The most important thing is to preserve relationships.”