In January of this year, Kentucky students, parents, teachers, and school administrators were rocked by the tragedy that happened in Marshall County. Two young lives were cut short when their futures held so much potential. On the heels of that tragedy, the Kentucky legislature created the School Safety Working Group as a process for legislators and state leaders to gather information from experts on school safety and make recommendations for action. Earlier this week, the parents who so recently suffered the loss of their children bravely stepped forward to advocate for changes to prevent this from happening to other students and other schools. The urgency for change and leadership have created an environment ready for thoughtful and impactful changes to help every child have a safe environment in which to learn.
The working group has met several times this summer, and under the leadership of Co-Chairs Max Wise and Bam Carney, the meetings have been marked by a thoughtful approach to the tough topic at hand. The panel has heard from content experts on issues such as school security, building infrastructure, and behavioral health, while also gathering input from students, school officials, and parents. Already, several themes have emerged.
First, experts have consistently talked about the critical importance of relationships. In his presentation at the June meeting, Jon Akers of the Center for School Safety raised this point as a strategy on which there is much agreement. He added the importance of a student knowing teachers have their best interest in mind and that open communication by students is a key to success. Dr. Vestena Robbins with the Department for Behavioral Health, Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities also discussed the critical importance of relationships, describing the importance of schools developing a positive approach to discipline, creating an environment where students feel empowered to speak up, and creating a sense of belonging.
Another theme that has emerged is the need for a balance between changes that strengthen the school’s physical infrastructure with student supports that address behavioral health needs. Safety experts discussed the importance of basic protections, such as having locked doors and a buzzer system to allow visitors to enter the school building. Yet they also raised the importance of relationships and taking a comprehensive approach to improving school safety. And as Dr. Robbins, and other research has noted, physical safety measures must strike a balance with psychological safety, because physical safety measures alone may unintentionally increase fear among some students.
Finally, a theme has emerged around building on the existing knowledge and effective practices already in place here in Kentucky. That was evident with the Kentucky experts who knows what it takes to improve physical safety and how to strengthen the social and emotional well-being of Kentucky students. It has also been evident with the examples brought forward by students and school administrators about practices already in place in certain districts. Programs like Sources of Strength in Trigg County, Handle with Care in Jefferson County, and Oldham County’s work to effectively develop a school safety assessment team all offer models that are currently working in Kentucky school districts.
The School Safety Working Group meetings have brought to light many promising ideas that take a truly comprehensive approach to improving the safety of our schools. Now the true challenges emerge. How can these promising practices be synthesized into policies that promote effective practices across our state? How can high expectations be set that allow for local flexibility? How can the state support districts in the work of implementing proven and promising practices? We look forward to the work ahead to answer those questions – because all Kentucky children deserve a safe environment in which to learn.