Want to make sure your child’s school is safe? These are the questions parents should ask.

With gunfire in schools at an all-time high, though still rare, back-to-school season begins this year with many parents more concerned than ever about school safety.

While many schools and states have turned to physical safety measures such as extra police presence and metal detectors, others rely on social-emotional learning to improve school climate.

“You have these two genres – the zero-tolerance policies and making each school look like a little prison on one side. Ironically, you have – at the same time – the opposite vision of making school’s a more loving and caring and supportive place,” said Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social work and education at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He noted that schools are increasingly leaning on both methods simultaneously to address school safety – a route he said might not work.

“Are both of these views compatible? Can (students) feel like they belong … if their school is doing both? We don’t know for sure,” Astor said. “These are really, in some ways, scary times in our country, because it’s not a simple list that parents should think about. They have to balance all these issues.”

Experts, educators and advocates offered USA TODAY some of the questions parents should consider when assessing the safety of their children’s schools.

What is social-emotional learning?

School climate, which refers to students’ feelings of acceptance, appreciation and value in their school, is the most important factor for maintaining safety, said Aaron Kupchick, professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware.

To maintain a positive school climate, experts stress the importance of teaching social emotional learning (SEL) – which prioritizes the development of social and emotional skills in students, including self-awareness, empathy and resilience. Over the past few years, SEL has been linked to critical race theory, and conservatives have said the practice as a form of “woke indoctrination.”

SEL at school is crucial for student safety and success, said Heather Reynolds, a professor of teacher education at State University New York, Empire State University.

“It impacts not only safety, but academics. It improves mental health and students feel safer. They’re more engaged, more likely to come to school and have a positive perception of school.”
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