5. Reimagine Safety, Together

Safety is built on trusting relationships, open communication, and mutual support, and calls for the participation of everyone in the school community. Youth (and adults!) told us they felt safe when they felt heard, seen, valued, and supported by those around them. People spoke about school safety as “a sense of belonging,” “connection,” and “space for vulnerability,” and knowing that you can show up as your “whole self,” without being judged. As Bianca put it, “The thing that makes you feel safe is the relationships.”


This might feel like a big departure from ideas about physical safety as the absence of violence, but young people, educators, and parents were clear that physical safety and emotional safety are deeply interconnectedand that both are required for students to be able to learn and grow. Participants directly linked the building of strong relationships and communication skills to violence prevention. Young people especially emphasized the connection between safety and the presence of supportive, relatable school staff who were always ready to listen and help.

At the same time, participants were clear that there is no single definition for safety within a community, and that personal feelings about safety are shaped by our unique identities, experiences, and relationships to power and privilege. With this in mind, youth and adults spoke about the need to engage in ongoing community conversations to develop shared understandings about safety, engaging all school stakeholders and centering student perspectives. As Nori explained, “We don’t always agree, and we don’t all come from the same backgrounds or same circumstances, but when there’s a level of connection there or respect, then that helps safety.”
We also heard about structural forces that make people feel unsafe in school, including the presence of racism, the power that staff have over students, and past “educational trauma” for students, staff, and parents. A number of staff and students also spoke painfully about how metal detectors and school safety agents contributed to young people feeling criminalized and stereotyped in school, on the basis of class and race. It is important to note, however, that some youth said that school safety agents and metal detectors did make them feel safe. Other students grappled with mixed feelings—naming that metal detectors and school safety agents criminalize youth, but not having a sense of how to keep schools safe without them. The school staff we spoke to had more consensus about the negative impact that school safety agents and metal detectors have on their students. This diversity in perspectives reaffirms that the conversation of “what makes us feel safe,” is both essential and ongoing.

Listen to Community Voices

Hear from students, parents, and educators about how they are reimagining school safety, together.

Work through Contradictions

Vent Diagrams help us reflect on the challenges, complexities, and contradictions of doing this work, and figure out how we can keep moving forward. Here is one of the big tensions we heard from participants about reimagining safety, together.

left half of vent diagram, which is a venn diagram with nothing in the center, showing the tension between the two texts right half of vent diagram

Everyone should feel safe in school

Safety means different things to different people

Talk with Your Community

What does this look like for you and the people in your life? Use the prompts below to start reimagining safety in your school and communities, laying the groundwork for community understanding and making change. (Check out the Community Conversations Toolkit for downloadable guides for facilitating discussions about this project.)

Make It Happen

The young people, educators, and parents we spoke with shared incredible examples of how they are already reimagining safety in their schools, as well as visions of the world we must keep fighting for…. This is what restorative justice looks like, when it’s On Our Terms.

Build School Practice.

Here are specific ideas about how school communities can reimagine safety, together.

  • Engage in a collective process with school staff, students, and their families every year to build community values and agreements for members of the school community. Special attention should be paid to student experiences and ideas, and there should be ongoing community reflection about how agreements and school rules are being upheld, including challenges and places for growth.
  • Ensure that key community spaces, including school leadership meetings and student advisories, include regular discussions with parents, students, and educators about safety in the school community, including definitions of safety, current needs, personal experiences, and ideas for promoting safety in the school community.
  • Incorporate safety and accountability into all job or role descriptions in the school community (not defined through means of policing), demonstrating how safety is created and maintained by the entire community.
  • Develop and publicize a list of mental health resources and social supports in your school and neighborhood, with the participation of students, families, and local community partners.

Building Safety Through Community Values:
Nori R. (she/her), staff: Having students create community norms, community agreements. Having them decide what feels safe for them as opposed to you thinking you know what’s going to be safe.
Morgan L. (she/her), staff: Emotionally, whatever is being modeled by the staff, students internalize. So teachers and other staff members don’t feel emotionally safe in the school, if it feels very punitive or if it feels high stakes… I think that trickles down to the students. So I think you have to create a culture amongst staff of emotional safety. And I think… building school-wide norms as staff members is really important to create a sense of safety in the school.

Demand Policy Change.

Here are some key policies needed to better support our schools in transforming school culture and growing restorative justice.

  • Provide funding and guidance to schools for processes to design community-specific approaches to school safety, rather than controlling it through city-wide mandates.
  • Create community safety worker positions within schools that are not employed by the NYPD and which do not have a policing role, responsible for violence prevention and responses in school communities; such a program might be modeled after community violence interrupters or credible messenger initiatives.