What is School Safety?

Progress Report podcast logo - Comprehensive School Safety Planning Series

We ask our guests to share what school safety means to them. This is followed by a conversation with the directors of the National Center for School Safety.

Guests: Nicole Hockley, Danny Carlson, Katherine Schweit, Chris Melde, Justin Heinze, Marc Zimmerman

Comprehensive School Safety Planning Series Description

In this series, guests describe the importance of having a Comprehensive School Safety Plan, explain different perspectives on school safety, and highlight the connections between school safety strategies.

Other episodes in this series:

Episode 1 Transcript

Justin Heinze: Oftentimes in education, we can tend to get siloed – in particular with our safety programming, and when we think about frameworks that engage other members of the community, they are actively creating partnerships between police bodies as well as psychologists and psychiatrists, so that we can have a collective approach for doing what’s best for students in the given situation.

Brent Miller: Hello and welcome to Progress Report, a podcast produced by the National Center for School Safety, the STOP School Violence Program National Training and Technical Assistance Center, funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The center is a project of the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Thank you for tuning into this series on comprehensive school safety planning. We hope listening helps you recognize the importance of planning, understand the different perspectives on school safety, and discover the connections in how various disciplines approach school safety. In this first episode, we’re going to discuss the question: What is school safety? The voice you heard at the beginning of this episode was Dr. Justin Heinze, an expert in educational psychology. The guests you’re about to hear from are experts in various fields, such as education and law enforcement. They’re going to share what school safety means to them. This will be followed by a conversation with the directors of the National Center for School Safety.

Hi. Could you please introduce yourself and tell me what school safety means to you?

Nicole Hockley: My name’s Nicole Hockley, and I’m the co-founder and managing director of Sandy Hook Promise. Sandy Hook Promise is an organization that I helped launch eight years ago after the shooting at Sandy Hook School in which my youngest son was killed. It’s really ensuring that we create that positive, inclusive climate and culture where students don’t have to worry about safety and can just focus on learning their academics and learning life skills and peer interaction. We have a responsibility to create that safe environment that they can do that by really focusing on “how can we get ahead of any violence or self-harm issues?” and prevent them from happening in the first place.

Danny Carlson: My name’s Danny Carlson, and I work for the National Association of Elementary School Principals. Safe schools I think is about certainly the safe physical space that as students and staff attend, I think our members really think about in terms of safe and supportive schools. So what are the artifacts in a school that help students and staff sort of feel safe? The sort of short answer on it, I think, is that creating and sustaining genuinely safe and supportive schools, and I think that the social and emotional aspect of children and how they psychologically feel safe as well.

Katherine Schweit: My name is Katherine Schweit, and I’m an attorney, and I’m a retired FBI agent and executive, and an expert in school safety. School safety is the students feeling so ready and able to learn because they don’t even have to worry about safety, and that’s something that I feel like if you talk to students today, none of them would probably say, “Oh, I never think about safety.” I think they do, ’cause they’re bombarded by it in the news and bombarded by their friends and their family.

Chris Melde: My name is Chris Melde. I work in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. School safety is really a multi-dimensional issue. There’s certainly physical safety components such as the presence of fights, or guns on campus, weapons on campus, but there’s also interpersonal factors that are what we oftentimes refer to as relational aggression, including things like intimidation, bullying and conflict that doesn’t always rise to the level of physical violence. There’s also a perceptual level that is present among a lot of school stakeholders that includes more amorphous fears or concerns about one’s safety. They’re not always tied to particular people or situations. Really, it’s a school’s social and physical environment really can engender those feelings of safety or concern, depending on many elements that have to do with the general school climate that one perceives. So in this way, school safety means not only the lack of physical harm in a school environment, but also a school that feels safe for its stakeholders including teachers, parents, students, staff, visitors, really anybody who’s on campus.

BM: You just heard from a variety of school safety experts. We’ll share those full conversations in later episodes. Now on to my conversation with the directors of the National Center for School Safety, Doctors Justin Heinze and Marc Zimmerman.

JH: My name is Justin Heinze. My background is in educational psychology, and over the last 10 years, I have been conducting applied research in the area of youth violence prevention. Part of my research program is to combine my interest in education and safety promotion. What got me started in this field was the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, and from there, I had just begun my career in the School of Public Health and I was interested in violence, but having two young children and seeing so much coverage around the shooting, it prompted me to think about how violence happens in and around schools. And as I am now a parent of school-aged children, I think it’s obvious how violence can detract away from the educational mission of schools across the country.

Marc Zimmerman: Hi, I’m Marc Zimmerman. I’m a professor in the School of Public Health and Department of Health Behavior, Health Education. I’ve been here for 30 plus years, and I’ve been working on youth violence prevention in some way for most of that time. And I got interested in school violence because that’s where youth spend most of their time, and that’s where a lot of the tension between students can occur is being insulted in school, being bullied in school, fights that happen after school, and so school violence became a natural outgrowth of the work that I’ve been doing for a very long time. When I think about school violence and school safety, I think sort of broadly, ecologically and all of the different factors that may go into that. Over 80% of school mass shootings are done by students or former students at that school. That’s an astonishing statistic. But let me also say that school shootings, mass shootings anyway, are relatively rare. They make the headlines because they’re also extremely upsetting, and there are often mass casualties and deaths.

JH: And so for me, one of the roles that we can play is to try and create an environment that allows students to actualize as learners and to go to school without fear of being bullied or victimized, and really concentrate on their learning and really becoming the best individuals that they can be.

BM: What are some examples of school safety issues or scenarios?

JH: It’s important to recognize that schools are an environment where multiple modes of violence can occur, so we can’t just focus on, for example, victimization or even bullying. We have to understand that other types of violence, other forms of violence – for example, intimate partner violence or even connections to self-directed violence – can all happen within a school environment. So from a comprehensive school safety perspective, we need programming that addresses the many forms in which violence can take, and then we can even think about the victims and perpetrators of that violence, so although we might naturally think of students as both the victims of and some often the perpetrators of that violence, we can also consider other members of the school community, which can include administrators and teachers, who can both perpetrate and be victims of violence in and around schools. So again, from a comprehensive perspective, we need broad scope interventions that can treat violence in its many forms and engage the entire school population to get broad buy-in so that we can prevent future violence from happening.

MZ: And when we think about the broad school environment, it’s also the parents, it’s not just who’s in the building. It’s parents, it may be law enforcement of one kind or another. Something like 25 states in the United States require school resource officers, so they would need to be involved. And there might be other parties that might be relevant, and in fact, it might be an opportunity to create schools linking to other parts of the community, so that they’re not just out there by themselves, and “We’re a school,” or “We’re law enforcement,” “Oh, we’re a business,” but it could be a much more integrative approach.

JH: I think Marc really has an interesting point, and oftentimes in education, we can tend to get siloed, in particular with our safety programming, and when we think about frameworks that engage other members of the community… So thinking about threat assessment or crisis intervention. They are actively creating partnerships between police, police bodies as well as psychologists and psychiatrists, so that we can have a collective approach for doing what’s best for students in the given situations. The schools can respond to many emergencies, but not all emergencies, and so building those partnerships is important.

MZ: If we think about the school ecologically, it’s a system within itself, so all the interactions of what’s going on there, from everybody from the janitor to the principal to the school board, but then there’s also… It’s located in a community, and often schools are a community center, and so we wanna try to think about ways that it’s a resource, that people see it as a positive place to be. The other thing that’s really important is recognizing the signs, and I think that’s a movement that’s happening in school safety all together, whether it’s threat assessment, whether it’s anonymous reporting systems, whether it’s mental health first aid, it’s recognizing some of the yellow flags along the way. Rarely, for example, are shootings impulsive. There’s usually some kind of plan about it, and that plan suggests that there’s other things happening.

Like, are they asking when people are mostly in the school? “When do the doors close?” They start asking questions – like, “Why do you need this question?” So that’s one thing is recognizing the signs is really, really important, I think, and I think there’s lots of strategies for that and lots of strategies for reporting that – that adults and kids play in recognizing this about their friends, about their peers. And it isn’t a sort of tattletale, it’s sort of to be helpful. It’s a way to, “What’s going on here? And maybe somebody else should kind of look at this.” And the other thing that’s I think important is if one person reports it, you think like, “Oh, that was something little,” but one little thing for one person and another little thing for another person, and after a while, all these little things build up to be, “Whoa, there were lots of signs.” When they’ve looked at shooting incidents later, especially the mass shootings.

They find out all sorts of signs that were not put together in one place, but if they were, it could have been prevented, because it would have been so obvious to people. It’s kind of like, a puzzle doesn’t make sense until you have enough pieces together, but separately they mean nothing. So, the whole idea about reporting and noticing the signs and somebody, sort of, being in charge, to kind of, pull this together, which is why it’s so important to have so many partners and people involved, because they might see this kid being bullied over here, somebody else might see this kid starting to give away all the things he cares about. But there’s also the disparities about how… What do we do when we find out somebody is in trouble? ‘Cause typically, the shooting is because of something else going on in their lives.

Either, they’re starting to feel bad about themselves, maybe the world is helping them feel bad about themselves. Maybe they’re experiencing something at home, or in the neighborhood. There’s always a story around what clicks that moment… And it’s again, plan-ful. So, what we have to be really careful about is being conscious of our unconscious bias… That, if we need to be equitable in what information we receive and how that’s handled, across people regardless of their gender, regardless of their ethnicity, regards to, anything about that. It’s not about their personage, it’s about that kid. And I think that’s really important to sort of pay attention to.

JH: Marc mentioned reporting systems and I think, those… They’re a great example of a couple of trends in school safety that are really encouraging. The first is when you think about reporting systems or mental health first aid, you’re flipping the traditional, prevention model, where you’re not just… It’s not just top directing. You’re actually engaging students in their own safety promotion. So, they’re working with teachers and administrators to make their environment safer. From a public health background, we’d call that, kind of, empowering youth to take ownership over their school community, which I think reflects an additional trend of interdisciplinarity, where we see ideas getting pulled from a lot of different disciplines. So, it’s criminal justice, it’s public health, it’s education, it’s psychology, all coming together to develop these new and innovative ways that… And approaches that we can use, in different school environments.

BM: Why is it important to take the time to explore and define school safety, to understand school safety issues?

JH: If I think about safety and why it’s so important, I get to wear these two hats, coming from education and now coming from the safety world. When I think about theories of education and how students learn. Oftentimes I’ll think of this pyramid where the learning is at the very, very top of the pyramid. And there are all these pieces that’s on the base of the pyramid. And two of the more fundamental pieces of that pyramid are your physiological and psychological safety. So, the argument goes, if those needs are not met, then you’re never going to be able to build efficacy and find the belonging and affiliation that you’re gonna need to really motivate as a learner and to self-actualize. And so focusing on those areas, as just a basis and a fundamental requirement for any student anywhere, is reason enough, to have safety as a top priority, when you’re considering how to approach your school year. And at the same time, schools can get a bad rap.

I think when you have these salient events, like school shootings or when you see statistics that publicize the number of victimizations, it can make schools feel very unsafe. But relatively speaking, schools are safe places. Among the safest places for youth to be. Our challenge is to take that… Those incidents that can occur and do occur and work with school administrators, students and teachers, to reduce that number to as close to zero as we can possibly get.

MZ: One of the things I think we wanna think about it is… And I’ve said it before, this idea of social-emotional learning, but… That, education isn’t just about learning how to read and write and do arithmetic, right? It’s about how to work with people. It’s about how to control one’s emotions, it’s about how to think analytically. And so really what we wanna do… School safety to me is thinking about how do we create a next generation of empathetic, thoughtful, critical thinking, compassionate, human beings. If we have that, then we’ll notice the signs, then we’ll care about each other in different ways, we’ll understand people’s different perspectives. We’ll know that when that kid is acting out in a certain way, maybe it’s because something else is going on, nothing wrong with the kid. The other thing that we haven’t really talked about is, kids, spend a lot of time going to and from school. And even if they’re in a bus… And I was in a bus and I remember going to school and there would be fights that would break out on the bus.

So, the bus driver wasn’t just driving kids to and from, the bus driver was also needing to control this context. But also the kids who walked to school and creating the safe places. So, when we think about school safety, it’s also thinking about safe communities. And so, again, it’s that ecological thinking about how the school is really part of a larger system of creating future citizens, but also located in a place where current citizens are operating.

JH: One thing I want listeners to remember, as you’re moving through this podcast is, it’s the violence that you can’t see. I think you close your eyes and you think about school safety and school violence, you think of maybe bullying, you think of, reckless shootings, but we don’t remember those students that suffer in silence and that could be because they are suffering from depression or anxiety, or that they’ve been psychologically bullied either online or in person, because of their sexuality, because of their race. And to make sure that our programming and the efforts that we are engaging in, consider that violence that we can’t see.

MZ: Think ecologically, think about the school and the school… The whole building and all the people in it, but then also the community where it is located. I would think multi-sectorally, which means, thinking about people from different backgrounds and different organizations, to play a role. I would suggest thinking about the whole kid, meaning that, thinking about not just what’s going on with the kid, but what’s going on at home, what is the kid experiencing in the classroom, in between the classrooms, to and from school. And thinking about, how… What comes into the school is often what’s been outside, whether it’s in their neighborhood or in the household or wherever. And so, really the bottom line is think ecologically, be ecological.

BM: Thanks again for listening to this first episode in our comprehensive school safety planning series. In future episodes, you’ll hear more conversations with the experts you heard a little bit from today, as well as others working on school safety issues. For more information about the National Center for school safety, visit our website and nc2s.org or check us out on Twitter and Facebook. This episode of Progress Report was produced by the National Center for school safety at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Additional resources and information can be found in the show notes and music is thanks to Makaih Beats. This project was supported by cooperative agreement, Number 2019-S-BX-K001, awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the US Department of Justice’s office of justice programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime and the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the US Department of Justice.

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22 min.

Topic Areas

Comprehensive School Safety Plans

Crisis Timeline

Prevention Planning


School Personnel