Taking Collective Action to Ensure Schools are Safe for All Students


Tuesday, November 22, 2016


Welcome to the Oregon Leadership Network's blog series. Topics relate to building the capacity of education leaders to sustain research-based equitable practices across Oregon’s P–20 education system. Learn more about the Oregon Leadership Network.

In September, during an election season that brought racism, sexism and xenophobia to the forefront of the political debate, members of the Oregon Leadership Network (OLN) State Steering Committee came together to examine collective actions educational leaders could take to ensure student safety and encourage constructive dialogue.

Fast-forward to today. The election is over, but the hostility it created continues to reverberate in our classrooms, bathrooms and hallways, as well as on playgrounds and campuses. Three days after Americans cast their votes, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted more than 200 incidents of “election-related harassment and intimidation.” (That number had risen to more than 700 as of Nov. 16). These incidents most commonly took place in K–12 schools, colleges and universities—including several in Oregon.

While statements and actions of negativity have polarized communities, we have also seen students stand up together to call for unity and inclusive schools that respect all students and reject racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and sexism.

As leaders for equity, we have a unique responsibility to stand together to ensure our public schools and universities are free from harassment and discrimination. On behalf of the OLN State Steering Committee, the OLN Executive Committee recommends taking the following actions (all of which reflect work happening across the OLN) to ensure student safety and constructive dialogue in our schools.

Don’t wait for something to happen—be proactive

Our communities will take their cues on how to respond to hate speech and bigotry from us. Inform staff members, students, board members and families about your school’s policies on equity and nondiscrimination, as well as your dedication to constructive dialogue. Be sure to emphasize our collective responsibility to create a safe and inclusive learning environment for all students. Let students know that you value them and will advocate for them.

Stand together as a team

Conversations about race and religion can be messy and uncomfortable—which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them. As leaders for equity, provide your district and school teams with the support they need to tackle equity issues. Develop common language that represents your district’s equity values, work together to confront and solve problems and let staff members know you have their back.

Use your equity and nondiscrimination policies

Discrimination or harassment based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, familial status, source of income and/or disability is not allowed in Oregon’s public schools. Districts have clear harassment, bullying, equity and nondiscrimination policies that should guide the way you address and communicate student safety.

Provide school staff members with the skills they need to have difficult conversations

Teachers, counselors, principals and administrators need to know how to interrupt when they witness bigoted or discriminatory actions. They also need skills to foster and facilitate thoughtful, respectful discussions about complex current events and social issues. To support this work, the OLN has partnered with the National Equity Project. We can also call upon one another across our OLN member organizations.

Create space for students to lead

There is incredible power in student voice. Bring students together to discuss their ideas for creating safe schools that are free from discrimination, harassment and bullying. Give them opportunities to express themselves through writing, art and respectful conversations. Take the time to listen and create space for them to lead.

Leverage community organizations as partners

We don’t have to do this work alone—we can partner with community leaders and experts to both advance our equity efforts and support students and families. OLN districts have engaged organizations that work with immigrant and refugee communities, the Muslim community and Spanish-speaking families. These organizations can provide training and serve as conveners and facilitators for important conversations. Additionally, they may have culturally responsive resources and social services available for vulnerable populations.

Provide strong civics instruction and embed equity into curriculum

We have a responsibility to prepare our students to be engaged community members. Students need to have information about how our federal system of government works, as well as the checks and balances that exist within it. The Common Core State Standards ask our students to engage in argumentative writing and speaking, backing up their opinions with facts. We also have opportunities across curricula to address culture and identity, equity and the diversity of students’ experiences, all while creating an expectation of safety and respect.

Be familiar with state and federal laws, as well as the protection immigrant students are afforded in our schools and universities

We have a civil rights obligation to provide English learner students, many of whom are immigrants, with equitable access to education—regardless of their legal status (see below). In addition, students and parents should not be expected to disclose their immigration status, and school personnel involved with student registration are not obligated to help enforce U.S. immigration laws. Following the election, several OLN members publicly expressed their commitment to protecting the safety of undocumented students and families. Additionally, schools and universities have policies regarding the protection of student information. Know the policies and how they affect your students and families.

Tools for schools and districts: