DA Op-ed: Why the 20th anniversary of Columbine should be about listening to students

By: | April 19, 2019

Sonya Heisters is the director of partnerships and outreach for San Francisco-nonprofit YouthTruth.

It was April 20th, 1999, and I was a high school junior. Though generally a compliant student, on this day, I convinced a cute boy from drama class to cut school with me. It felt risky and fun. It felt dangerous.

That evening my 16-year-old definition of danger was re-defined: I watched the news of students just like me massacred at their high school. Maybe avoiding school was the safest choice.

I’m a parent and an educator now. Years later that cute boy became my husband, and we struggle, like all parents, to trust that our children will be safe at school. While more than 226,000 students at 233 schools have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine—a number that is staggering and unforgivable—the likelihood of being killed by a gun at school still is incredibly low (1 in 614,000,000 by one estimate).

Like much of America, on the 20th anniversary of Columbine I’m thinking about school safety. And as an educator, I feel that the national conversation about gun control, lock-down drills, and the role of policy, miss the obvious central character: the student. The broad narrative emphasizes shocking events over a more pernicious culture of violence that trolls the halls of our nation’s schools.

We should be talking about individual student perceptions of safety—the unremarkable, statistically common threats of violence that students experience at school every single day.

What do students say?

We know that a safe environment is a prerequisite for student learning. But what we may not know, is how safe—or unsafe—students feel in our schools. To shine light on this essential question, the national nonprofit that I now help lead—YouthTruth—released a report that analyzed insights gathered through anonymous student perception surveys from 35,000 secondary students across eight states.

The national conversation about gun control, lock-down drills, and the role of policy, miss the obvious central character: the student.

We found that just over half—59 percent—of students feel safe from harm at their school, and about one in three students report that students get into physical fights and feel they must be ready to defend themselves. Furthermore, middle school students are slightly more likely than high school students to observe physical fights, and students who identify as black or African-American are slightly more likely than their white peers to feel that they must be ready to fight to defend themselves.

What about parents?

We also asked over 9,000 parents and guardians about their perceptions of safety at their child’s school and found the majority of family members believe their child is safe from violence.

So, what should we do?

We can’t predict the next school shooting, but we can listen to students and allow their feedback to guide interventions. When students report less favorable ratings of safety than parents do, we need to put student voices first.

Here are tips for gathering student insights:

  • Start with safe spaces for dialogue. The most actionable way to know if students feel safe is to ask them directly and anonymously.
  • Make every voice matter. Before focus groups and interviews, hear from as close to 100% of your student population as possible. Clear communication about what you’re going to do with the information will help with response rates.
  • Tease out what’s working for whom. Self-identified student demographics such as grade-level, gender identity, race/ethnicity, family income, etc. will enable adults to understand how safety is going and for whom.
  • Have a quick turnaround on the feedback. Data that comes back months or years later is useless as an intervention strategy.
  • Close the feedback loop. After gathering feedback, for heaven’s sake, thank the students for their time and insight.

It’s simple: students must feel safe to learn. As adults, our job is to ensure all children feel safe in school. Creating a safe space for learning starts with listening to our students. We must prioritize not only listening our students, but also using their input to enact change.

Sonya Heisters is the director of partnerships and outreach for San Francisco-nonprofit YouthTruth. Follow Sonya at @sonyaheisters.