Concern over violence in schools is understandable. A December shooting at Arapahoe High School in Littleton and the self-immolation recently attempted at Standley Lake High School in Westminster show how important it is to address mental health issues. Preventing students from perpetrating acts of violence requires schools to help pupils develop not just academically, but also emotionally.
There are many well-intentioned ideas about how to make schools safer. Some proposals court controversy, while some are more widely accepted. Underlying the discussion of how to make schools as safe as possible there is an inescapable truth: every child is different and has unique academic and emotional needs. When it comes to safety it would be wonderful if this were not true. If every child were the same it would be easy to identify and implement a solution. However, there is no single strategy or intervention that covers every student’s needs or makes schools 100 percent safe.
The National Association of State Boards of Education recommends minimum ratios for school psychologists, social workers, and counselors per student. These support services are incredibly valuable to many children. Prescriptive ratios do not, however, account for the fact that individual needs vary. Schools must adjust to the demands of the student population as well as circumstances in the surrounding community. Some schools will require more or less counseling staff than others.
Further, counseling is not the only way to improve mental health and increase safety. Extracurricular activities and individualized academic support, among other things, can contribute to emotional health and prevent violence. This raises the question of who ought to make decisions related to school safety. Those who are closest to students should determine the best way to create safe and nurturing schools. A nationally recommended ratio cannot possibly address individual needs more accurately than parents, principals, and school staff.
In order to act on their knowledge, and that of their communities, principals need the authority to direct resources to areas of greatest need. This requires budgetary autonomy and the ability to alter spending when needs change. For instance, one school may be best served by hiring an additional social worker while another may do better by providing more opportunities for after-school programming.
Colorado charter schools have extensive budgetary autonomy. This allows schools to direct resources toward those programs that best meet student needs. The Girls Athletic Leadership School (GALS), a middle school, employs seven emotional support staff to meet the needs of the young women enrolled there.
The New America School (NAS) serves a different student population. The school offers an extended school day, reimbursement for childcare expenses, and intensive support for English Language Learners. All of these increase the likelihood that students can establish meaningful relationships with school staff and achieve their goals.
GALS and NAS can provide specialized support because administrators have complete autonomy over school resources. Neither school would be as effective at helping students develop academically and emotionally if they were forced to obey top-down directives that ate up school funding. At charter schools, leaders are empowered to tailor resource use and quickly adapt to student needs and demands. This enables school communities to maintain safer and more productive learning environments.
Denver Public Schools (DPS) give principals much more budget autonomy than most traditional public school districts in the U.S. through their student-based budgeting (SBB) policy. Unlike many traditional district finance policies that rely on staffing ratios, SBB allocates 44 percent of all DPS operating funds to a per-pupil funding formula, where money follows Denver students to the school of their choice. Denver principals enjoy autonomy over SBB funds, and can tailor spending to best meet student needs. However, DPS central office dictates how the other 56 percent of operating funds are spent.
DPS’s budgetary constraints mean that traditional public schools cannot offer the same level of innovative, specialized programming as is seen in charters like GALS or NAS. These kinds of tailored programs show students that their voices are heard, and that their safety and success is the school’s primary objective. Successful and secure is not the typical profile of a student who acts out violently. Giving greater budgetary autonomy to traditional public school principals would give them greater opportunity to ensure the health of their students and schools, increasing the likelihood that the right intervention will be available at the right time.
Those participating in the school safety discussion could learn something from the charter school community. There are countless philosophies on the best way to manage schools. It is important to remember that the real goal is not to impose one approach universally, but to give parents and school staff the power to do what works best for individual children. The best way to make every student safer is to give principals greater autonomy so that they can act on the knowledge of parents and staff to create schools that are more responsive, inclusive, and secure.
Ethan Roberts is education policy intern for the Reason Foundation.