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Learning from Our Kids

December 20, 2001
Learning from Our Kids
Safe Schools Summit 2001

A high school teacher is informed by one of her students that a small band of disaffected teenagers is planning a Columbine-style massacre. They're going to bomb the school corridors, then shoot the teachers, jocks and preps. After they have killed just about everyone they can, they are going to go to the roof of the school, get high and then shoot each other. This was the scenario in New Bedford, Massachusetts just last month when five teenagers, including the student informant, were arrested for this violent plot. Could this happen here in Fort Worth? It sure could. Recently I invited 500 middle school and high school students to an open and honest discussion about school safety. On December 10th we met at Texas Christian University for the Granger Safe Schools Summit 2001. I gathered young people together to share their opinions and to help the community understand how to make students feel safe. I invited students from all of our area schools because I wanted to listen and learn from them. The students did most of the talking, and I did most of the listening. What did I hear? I heard that kids want to have adults in their lives. They want parents to ask questions. They want teachers and administrators to have a relationship with students built on trust and respect. They want boundaries. We got this instant feedback from the students by electronically polling them during the meeting on their various experiences and observations of their school environment. This was a very diverse group of students. They ranged in age from 6th to 12th grade. They came from all different ethnic backgrounds – Caucasian, Hispanic, African American. There were representatives from urban, suburban and rural schools. They were from public schools, private schools and alternative schools. The best news we heard from listening to these kids was that they did, overall, feel physically safe in their schools. At least 78 percent of students said they felt safe always or almost always. Specifically, 83 percent of the kids felt physically secure. This is in marked contrast to a similar meeting I held with high school students in 1992, while I was Mayor of Fort Worth. At that time, students said they were very uncomfortable in their schools, and they clearly didn't feel safe. These great results are a testament to the diligence of our community, school districts, and individual schools. The attitude among students has turned around dramatically in recent years. The kids said the following were the most important components to feeling safe in school: communication, genuine relationships, trust, and teacher involvement with students on a daily basis. When asked what makes them feel most safe at school, the students said the relationships between teachers, administrators, and students was the most important. Another important safety component was the presence of security in schools, and specifically being supervised and monitored by teachers and adults. Time and time again, we heard that adult involvement really does matter. It is crucial that parents, teachers and principals are available to kids. When the communication lines are open, and there is trust, the students feel their environment is secure and stable. When it came to describing their relationships with their teachers, 89 percent of them said teachers treated all students with respect some or most of the time. When asked if they had a teacher whom they trusted when they had a suggestion, question or concern, 89 percent of students said they had at least one teacher they could turn to. It's important that the dialogue between teachers and students exist, because more often than not, the students have direct knowledge of a violent situation brewing in their school. More than half the students polled at the Safe Schools Summit did not think principals and teachers were aware of violence happening on school grounds most of the time. And the majority of the students felt they, the students, could accurately predict if a fellow student was likely to act in a violent manner. The majority of students said parental involvement matters. The most important thing parents can do is talk and listen to their kids. I have been the mother of teenagers, and I know sometimes it is hard to get kids to open up. But from what we heard at the Safe Schools Summit, having that dialogue available is of paramount importance to kids. 77 percent of all students polled said that parental involvement affected school safety. When asked what the one thing parents can do to help them feel safe at school, the overwhelming majority of students replied that active involvement on the part of the parents was required. Students wanted parents to know what was going on at school, and they wanted them to ask questions. We asked the students what the most effective discipline policy would be to improve student behavior. Almost one quarter of all the students thought that a "zero tolerance" policy was the best way to go. And over 60 percent of all students polled agreed with the concept of a zero tolerance policy – meaning one strike and you're out, -- a disciplinary punishment will be handed down even if it is the student's first offense. With this Safe Schools Summit 2001 we brought students, teachers, parents and community leaders together to create an open discussion and come up with ideas and solutions. These kids were great to work with. They were open and honest. They were engaged and eager to provide input and suggestions for how to create the safest school environment possible. I want to commend all the students who participated for their maturity and their enthusiasm. I look forward to a continued dialogue with them, and have encouraged the students to create a dialogue within their schools. We know that the key to creating a safe school environment for our children is to encourage communication. We must make sure students are comfortable speaking to adults when they notice anything unusual or troubling occurring in their school. Parents must maintain an active involvement, and the relationships students have with their classmates, teachers and administrators need to have a base of trust and respect. We have seen far too often the tragedy of youth violence strike unsuspecting communities across the country. With the Safe Schools Summit 2001, we all came together to say we will not let the violence happen here in Fort Worth. We now know the needs of the students, and we owe it to the students to act on those needs. Mostly, kids want to know we care. They want us to ask about them and they want us to listen. At one point during the Summit, a young girl named Brittany came up to me and said, "Ms. Granger, I just want to thank you for having this meeting." Brittany, it's my pleasure. I am here with the community to help you and your friends so that you all can have the safest environment for learning -- and the brightest possible future.

  By Congresswoman Kay Granger