GUEST OPINION: School safety is everyone’s responsibility

Satya Chandragiri, Salem-Keizer School Board.

“How many more children do we sacrifice before we can be honest, transparent and do the right thing for our students’ and staff safety?” 

I raised this question in a Salem-Keizer School board meeting. It is unethical to fall into the spiral of silence and pretend everything is okay. The pandemic, school closure, disrupted attachment, social unrest and division in our community is perhaps fueling some of the emotional and behavioral turmoil. 

When incidents of school violence, suicide and bullying occur, it harms everyone and has disparate impact on those from vulnerable communities. Let’s include all to uphold safety—students, parents, staff, educators, mental health professionals, policy makers and child serving agencies including law enforcement. It is important to intervene before lives are changed or lost. School safety is essential for learning. 

Our community and youth have asked us to address this.

We cannot change what we don’t measure. The best practice calls for establishing good indicators, transparent data sharing, understanding the root causes and using data to inform the policy changes and accountability, not some external agendas, or biases.  Vision of safety without implementation plan is just a fantasy. 

Within the challenges, I see opportunities:  

Dismantle structural barriers

Parents worry about the safety of their children. They read media reports of high-risk situations yet feel excluded from participation.

The Oregon Department of Education should start publicly sharing the data on exclusionary discipline and make the public domain data easy to access, understand and use by the community. Lack of public access of this data risks timely identification of any suicide or violence contagion, save lives or support those who need additional help or early detection.

In 2018, Marion County lost 20 youths to suicide, and many were from our schools. That year the Salem-Keizer school district expelled 140 students, 1,385 students had out-of-school suspensions and 1,892 students had in-school suspensions, which was the highest among all Oregon school districts. Unfortunately, this has been the case for our district as far back as 2011 to 2016.

Those from vulnerable communities often face additional barriers as they are unaware of protections afforded under the law, policies, or ways to appeal.

Exclusionary discipline is harmful for all

Exclusionary discipline—including expulsions, out-of-school or in-school suspensions, and classroom removal disproportionately affects students from vulnerable communities. It leads to negative outcomes including poor grades, absenteeism, drop out rates, lower graduation, adult mental illness, and incarceration. A middle school student who receives an out-of-school suspension is 34% less likely to graduate high school on time, risks future suspensions even after four years. Even the bystanders are harmed and traumatized when high risk behaviors occur. 

There is no profile of a student attacker.It needs both, a timely threat-risk assessment along with risk mitigation such as therapy, social work intervention and referral for additional services. Often students can incur disciplinary actions for many reasons—bullying, violence and involvement with drugs, bringing weapons to school, or criminal behaviors such as sexual violence, gang violence, fire setting. They may have multiple underlying factors including emotional difficulties, thoughts of suicide, desperate feelings or some face setbacks in personal life or community, sudden losses, relationship breakups, have multiple social adversities, are victims of abuse, violence, bullying. Some have special needs and may be reacting to changes or sensory overload that perhaps triggers some of their behaviors. When children are hurting, some act out while others harm themselves. Trauma-informed schools and addressing underlying causes prevents high risk incidents.

Oversight matters

In April, 2021, the school district committed to undertake important operational changes to address student safety while rethinking their approaches to student discipline. They planned using restorative practices and not having regular presence of law enforcement officers in the school. The fiduciary oversight duty of the school board was to ensure it closely monitored the safety of the students, which was delegated to the district. District agreed to share historical and monthly reports in the school board meetings which best captured the school climate and safety. Thus, community could hold the board and district accountable. 

With many challenges adding up as our students returned to school, the number of suspensions this year jumped from 130 through June 2021 to over 1,300 just between September and November 2021. Some schools saw big surge in suspensions culminating in high-risk incidence, reported fights between groups of students and violence contagion, students getting arrested and many missed opportunities. 

It’s time to be transparent, honest, accountable and realize that school safety is everyone’s responsibility.

(Dr. Satya Chandragiri is a member of the Salem-Keizer School Board.)