For educators, the phrase “school safety” can encompass several elements – a school’s physical environment, students’ feelings of acceptance from teachers and peers, disciplinary practices and students’ connectedness to their school.
However, research has demonstrated stark disparities in school safety between white students and students of color and the negative implications for the latter group, including feeling unsafe in and out of school, higher school suspension rates and serious racial discrimination and trauma.
Assistant Professor Chavez Phelps and his colleagues at the University of Buffalo and the University of Cincinnati co-authored an article in School Psychology International outlining research on Black students’ school experiences and recommendations for how educators can rethink school safety for their most vulnerable students.
“Misperceptions of color-neutrality and meritocracy in school policies, funding, curricula, instruction and disciplinary practices are reflective of White, American, middle-class values that place Black students at a disadvantage at the intersection of education, property, race and class,” the authors wrote. “When viewing school climate and safety through a critical lens, it is clear that Black students often experience educational environments that are not made for them to succeed or feel safe and supported.”
Chavez and his co-authors detail Black students’ school experiences with physical and emotional safety. These experiences include feeling less safe around police officers hired to be school resource officers, experiencing microaggressions from white students and teachers and racial harassment.
To address these and other school safety issues, the authors recommend schools use culturally relevant, multi-tiered systems of support. This is a framework of interventions that can collect data on educational inequities in a particular school, create personalized, culturally relevant interventions for students, and recommend anti-bias training and professional development for teachers.
Schools can also incorporate Afrocentric mentoring programs that match students with Black mentors who teach them about Black culture, their historical roots and the positive characteristics associated with those cultural histories.
Schools can use restorative justice practices when disciplinary issues arise rather than automatically suspending students from school. These practices could include meetings among students to resolve their conflicts and creating classroom agreements that outline a class’s culture and rules for interacting with one another.
For all these practices to work, students, teachers, administrators, families and communities must come together to recognize the disparities Black students experience and address them head on.
“Given the dire need to better support Black students in schools, reconceptualizing school safety must be a top priority for school and district leaders,” the authors wrote. “As a result, it is the responsibility of school and district stakeholders to better understand the schooling experience of Black students. Key stakeholders must examine the culturally biased assumptions held within themselves and the education system to effectively foster an environment of safety for Black students in schools.”
About the Researcher
Department of Counseling and Psychological Services
Assistant Professor Chavez Phelps is a native of New Orleans, La. His research interests include examining the impact of school-based trauma interventions and strategies. He has conducted several trauma-informed care workshops for school districts and educators. Before entering academia, Phelps functioned as a school-based practitioner in New Orleans, La.; he also worked with the Louisiana Public Health Institute to ensure youth had access to quality community behavioral health services. Currently, he serves as a member of the Government and Professional Relations Committee for the National Association of School Psychologists.
Heidelburg, K., Phelps, C., and Collins, T. A. “Reconceptualizing School Safety for Black Students.” School Psychology International, 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1177/01430343221074708.