Maintaining a Safe Environment
Free from Threatening Words & Actions
Middle school students are vulnerable and can be easily upset. A word spoken in anger on the bus, in the classroom, or in the halls can lead to: a verbal exchange with racial, religious, and sexual references; a threat of physical violence; fighting and then drawing a knife.
Unfortunately, such events occur all too often at middle schools throughout the country. To promote a safe environment for everyone in the middle school, educators can do two things: learn more about the developmental level of middle school students and create an effective safe school plan.
Young adolescents (ages 10 to 15) go through tremendous physical, social, and mental change. They are insecure about their bodies and their place in their society and school. They are vulnerable to influences, comments, and behaviors that affect their self-image.
They are very fragile and will interpret a wide range of comments and behaviors as personal rejection. Their brains are still growing and their reasoning and self-censoring processes are not yet fully developed.
In middle school, students focus on group relationships. They establish groups, develop a strong identification with members of the group, and become competitive with other groups.
They do not understand others who are different from them—whether it's race or heritage or other characteristic. The insensitivity they show with inflammatory remarks is in part the result of limited information and undeveloped rational thinking.
Experienced middle school educators know that harassment arises from adolescents' lack of information and their immaturity. They also know that they must engage students in an ongoing process that includes information, education, and a range of responses.
All schools need a school plan to address harassment and safety issues. Be sure to include the following elements:
1. A Commitment to Safety
The first step is creating a written commitment to providing a safe and inviting school environment—for each individual student and for the whole school community. The commitment should include a "zero tolerance" policy that clearly addresses bullying, harassment, words and actions that intimidate and threaten, and any kind of action that would make the school unsafe.
Written copies of the policy should be distributed widely and posted throughout the school. Teachers can teach it as a focused lesson and integrate it into the curriculum. Administrators can add copies to student handbooks, school-provided student portfolios, and letters home to parents.
Principal to students. The principal should visit every classroom (once or twice a year) and talk about the school safety policy, what it means, and how students are expected to behave. The discussion should include: how it feels to be ridiculed, harassed, or bullied; the kinds of behaviors that constitute harassment; how harassment contributes to making the school feel unsafe or uncomfortable.
The principal should help students understand the thinking behind hurtful words that they may use without knowing the meaning.
Teacher to teacher. During teacher inservice and professional development days, teachers should discuss harassment and emotional environmental issues, assess the school's climate, and develop ways to ensure a safe emotional experience for all students.
Teacher to students. To support the principal's talks, each teacher should discuss harassment issues, both real ones occurring at school and potential ones, with his or her students. The teachers work with students to teach nonthreatening behavior and verbal exchanges and help students understand how behavior and verbal exchanges become harassment issues.
For example, "stereotyping" is at the core of many insulting comments and threatening behaviors. The faculty might plan activities for their classes, including role playing, watching films, discussions, and incorporating cultural differences and diversity into the curriculum of all subjects, particularly health, social studies, and literature.
3. Education and Communication with Parents
Because parents are critically important in developing student attitudes and behaviors, schools should engage parents in this process. Schools can begin by preparing a list of guiding behaviors and send parents a letter containing the list, the school’s safety policy, and the school's beliefs regarding diversity, understanding, and tolerance.
Guiding behaviors for parents, educators, and students:
- Promote mutual respect.
- Do not tolerate racial or ethnic slurs and name-calling.
- Point out your discomfort with inappropriate jokes or swearing.
- Be honest about lack of specific knowledge about another culture.
- Respect differences; interact in a positive way with people who are different from you.
- Confront any biased or discriminatory behavior you encounter.
- Report harassment to an adult to ensure everyone's safety. (Recognize the difference between reporting and tattling: reporting is done to keep everyone safe.)
Everyone must be involved in fostering positive values.
4. Immediate and Appropriate Response
Preventative measures are essential, but they cannot keep all dangerous situations from occurring. Everyone must work hard to create a safe school, but when problems arise, everyone must respond quickly.
- Promptly review reports of each incident and interview students.
- Call in police if weapons are involved.
- Take great care in determining length of expulsion and creating an educational plan that provides, among other elements, continued contact with the school.
- Provide any needed counseling on the topic of harassment.
- Use the incident(s) to discuss inappropriate behavior, tolerance, stereotyping, diversity, and school climate with staff and parents.
- Send a letter home to parents describing the activities the school will be using to promote the school goal of creating a safe and welcoming environment. Ask parents to join school staff in mutually supporting their students by fostering tolerance and positive behavior.
All educators in the school should—
- Use the incident(s) to discuss the issues with every class in the school.
- Plan additional ways to integrate understanding and background into the curriculum.
In summary, young adolescents are at a developmental stage that leaves them vulnerable to hurtful words or actions and "put downs." At the same time, the young adolescent is often unknowingly saying or doing things that pierce a thin veneer of confidence in other students. Effective educators will recognize all of this as normal (if undesirable) and work to educate students and to communicate regularly the belief system of tolerance, understanding, and recognition of differences.
Also by Pete Lorain
Squirming Comes Naturally to Middle School Students —Physical changes trigger behavioral changes.
About the Author
Pete Lorain, author of articles on middle schooling and other education issues, currently works under private contract. Prior to retirement, he served as a high school teacher, counselor, and administrator; middle school principal and director at the district level; director of human resources; and president of National Middle School Association from 1996 to 1997.