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Rather than try to shield students from discussions of violence, teachers can and should engage them

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Nurturing Safer Schools

Education professors examine how classroom culture affects violent behavior

By Tara Roberts
Photos by Pixel Light Photography

Incidences of school violence across the United States have sparked national debates, but these discussions often leave out an important element – the everyday culture within schools and its influence on student safety.

Boise-based Melanie Brooks, an assistant professor of leadership and counseling, and Jeff Brooks, chair of the College of Education’s Leadership and Counseling Department, study the connections between school climate and violence.

“Violence in schools is a real threat,” Melanie Brooks says. “We shouldn’t just stick our heads in the sand and pretend it’s not happening or could not happen. What are the things we can do, rather than make schools like a fortress or jail?”

They recent authored a paper that explores ways educational leaders can proactively address the atmosphere in their schools.

“If students don’t feel they’re in a safe environment, they’re not going to learn,” Jeff Brooks says. “A school should be a community of support and care for every student.”

This means educators must focus on students as individuals and be aware of small events that build up and hurt students and staff. “Microagressions” – such as undercurrents of racism, sexism or homophobia; social exclusion; or curriculum that discriminates against students’ cultures – can create a hostile environment for students and eventually may lead to physical violence.

Many high-profile acts of school violence are committed by students who are described as loners or outcasts, Jeff Brooks says. “Their worldview, for whatever reason, is they’re in a hostile, threatening environment.”

Education policymakers must address these underlying issues of school violence, beginning by talking to and understanding the work of administrators and teachers who experience – and help to create – the cultures within schools, Melanie Brooks says.

Students are another vital part of the equation.

“They know a lot and they deal with a lot,” Melanie Brooks says. “They might have some really good solutions that haven’t come out.”

Rather than try to shield students from discussions of violence, teachers can and should engage them, Jeff Brooks says. “A deft teacher can do that in everyday lessons, within in their content areas.”

The foundation of safer schools is built not only on overt methods like discussing violence in curricula, creating anti-bullying campaigns, or addressing gun control and mental health policies – it also demands attention to informal behaviors and habits and the ways educators shape how students feel when they come to school, Jeff Brooks says.

“Children need to know that people are working to make a safe environment for them, that we care for them, that we love them. From that foundation we can build an excellent learning experience. Without that foundation, students cannot be at their best.”