As we welcome our students back into classrooms, I’m filled with optimism for students’ growth and learning. At the same time, we face a painful reality that students can’t thrive at school unless their basic need for safety is met. In my role as a school board member at Aurora Public Schools, I’ve seen the unwavering commitment of our educators, parents, and students in creating a secure learning environment.
But safety goes beyond our school walls; it’s a shared responsibility that unites our entire community.
The scariest and saddest part of the school safety issue is the way my children and my wife have become numb and accepted this as part of daily life. It was scary when the last school shooting happened — I could not look children and my wife in the eye if they asked if they were going to be safe in school. The sad part was that they never asked. My three children and my wife all went back to our schools the very next day.
The start of the school year has prompted me to reflect upon the broader implications of our state’s approach to school safety. We are fortunate to live in a state that already boasts an array of resources and programs to improve the safety of our students and educators, ranging from a school crisis toolkit and grants for improving the school social environment, culture and systems to create a supportive environment, to a wide range of training on topics like de-escalation and bullying prevention. The state formed an interagency workgroup that has been meeting to identify opportunities to expand awareness, accessibility and the effectiveness of all state programs, with a report expected later this year.
At the same time, it is vital that we don’t confine these challenges to the label of “school violence.” Instead, these challenges stem from a complex web of community issues that inevitably affect our schools, impacting the well-being and educational experiences of our students.
Recognizing the significant impact of community violence on our schools, it’s clear that addressing this complex problem is a shared responsibility across our entire community, not solely borne by our schools.
With this in mind, I am heartened to hear of renewed efforts to reexamine systemic approaches to safety at the state and local level such as meetings of Confluence Policy & Strategy Group and the Public Education & Business Coalition of the Colorado Safer Schools Initiative. These dynamic gatherings unite a diverse array of stakeholders – parents, educators, law enforcement, mental health experts, legislators and community leaders – in a collaborative effort aimed to create lasting solutions for safer communities and safer schools.
The meetings of these groups delve into multifaceted discussions of issues that influence the safety and well-being of our students and educators. At the heart of these discussions lies an understanding that violence in schools is affected by a multitude of factors outside of schools – with tragic outcomes for students, educators and families. As such, the convening is revealing a deep commitment to enhancing the overall well-being of students and educators – including mental health support for both students and educators and an exploration of trauma-informed learning practices – and an appreciation for the role of community partnerships in forging an environment where schools and neighborhoods coalesce to foster security.
The journey toward comprehensive solutions is undoubtedly complex and there’s no easy answer. Still, the Colorado Safer Schools Initiative conveners and members have been clear on their commitment to actionable outcomes from this work. Conversations to date and the plans shared for upcoming meetings have already laid the groundwork for high-impact interim recommendations, expected later this year, such as expanded access to mental and behavioral health support, and informed practices in incident drills and responses and in the work of school resource officers. These and other ideas will serve as the cornerstone for transformative change and will be followed by an even more robust set of recommendations for changes at the local and state levels.
I’m optimistic about this progress, and at the same time aware that school funding continues to be a potential obstacle.There is very little guidance or earmarking of specific funds for school safety in the current funding model and in local components of school funding. This leaves schools having to frequently decide which programs should receive reduced funding to fund school safety initiatives. We must not only coalesce to find answers; we have to take the necessary steps, even if it involves some sacrifices, to bring those solutions into reality.
Every one of us can contribute to creating safer schools – through lending expertise, donating our time to strengthening our communities, or providing financial support to groups working to improve community safety. Regardless of our contribution, we are in this together, and I’m hopeful for our students’ future.
Michael Carter is a member of the Aurora Public Schools Board of Education.
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