Fostering Identity Safety in School

Edutopia

An environment where students are not bullied based on their race or other aspects of identity can be intentionally cultivated both inside and outside of the classroom.

By Becki Cohn-Vargas
October 5, 2016

School is a young person’s world for many of the hours of their youth, and identity-based bullying — based on a student’s race, sex, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, mental or physical disability, or other characteristics — can make that world a deeply negative experience. Everyone in the school needs to feel that they matter — not in spite of, but because of who they are. That is the feeling of identity safety.

An identity-safe school is a place where everyone feels physically and emotionally safe. Students have a sense that they belong and that people have their back. This kind of environment can be intentionally cultivated in all learning experiences, both inside and outside of the classroom. It encompasses how adults treat students, how students treat one another, and how adults treat other adults.

But many students experience the opposite of this ideal. Those who are perceived as different can be subject to cruel teasing, name-calling, bullying, and cyber-harassment, all the way up to intimidation, threats, and physical violence. Educators are not always aware of bullying until a serious incident occurs because it is done under the guise of “kidding around” or occurs in the shadows. Educators across the world are waking up to the extent of the damage and the often long-lasting suffering that goes way beyond the specific incidents. And we are recognizing our responsibility to address all forms of bullying and intolerance.

Addressing Bullying on Multiple Levels
If bullying is handled only at the disciplinary level, underlying biases and attitudes about the kids who are perceived as different persist. Getting to a deeper level that truly leads to change goes beyond a bullying assembly, specific lessons, or disciplinary practices in response to bullying. It requires looking at the whole school environment. Here are four important elements in handling bullying, or avoiding it to begin with:

Foster identity safety in an environment of respect, empathy, and kindness by modeling it all day long through classroom and school-wide learning activities.
Engage in dialogue about race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and other identity characteristics to bridge differences. Much bullying is based on biases, and those biases need to be addressed by refuting stereotypes and by having students learn about each other and develop empathy to bridge differences.
Take swift action to address bullying and all forms of intolerance by offering support and guidance to all involved. Help targets gain confidence to speak up for themselves; help those who bully change their behavior; and help bystanders become upstanders who speak up when they see harm being done.
Listen to students’ voices and give them tools and opportunities to be leaders and activists in finding solutions.
A team approach can be used to develop an identity-safe climate where every student and staff member feels welcomed and valued, where nobody has to leave their identity at the door.

Six Things You Can Do to Foster an Identity-Safe Environment
The process to address school climate involves a concerted effort.

Create an infrastructure with a leadership team to guide climate improvement efforts.
Train staff, students, and parents on identity safety, bullying prevention, and how to address intolerance.
Collect data on school climate. This includes incidents of bullying and other discipline, as well as student and staff attitudes and feelings. Repeat the assessment yearly to track progress and determine where to focus improvement efforts.
Analyze and update policies, procedures, and practices to ensure that they are equitable and student-friendly.
Create an identity-safe school plan or incorporate identity safety and positive climate efforts into your existing plan.
Focus on both student wellness and staff wellness.
Unquestionably, transforming school climate and sustaining that change are not easy, but both are well worth the time and effort. The students will feel better and achieve at higher levels, and the staff will have higher morale. That does not mean that bullying will never happen again, but when it does, a school that is poised to respond and take swift action will lead the healing process and will continue to move forward in a positive direction. Our students deserve nothing less.

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