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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 13, Number 2, October 2000

B.C. Safe Schools Week October 15–21, 2000
A safe and caring environment

by Terry Waterhouse

Visit Kim Clark’s intermediate classroom at Clinton Elementary School, in Burnaby, and you immediately pick up on the positive energy. Surrounded by displays of youthful art and exemplary work, her students are engaged, working individually and collaboratively, happy and eager to learn. Clark’s classroom, like those of her colleagues at Clinton, reflects a school-wide commitment that links academic success with a safe, caring environment.

Clark’s personal commitment to school safety arose from a strong belief that academic success can occur only when students feel safe and cared for. Her belief has been strengthened over the years through her frontline view of the negative short- and long-term effects of bullying, harassment, and intimidation. “Sometimes it’s subtle, but the impact is undeniable,” says Clark. “A safe, supportive environment is as important as the ABCs if you want a child to be successful.”

Over the last several years, Clinton, like other schools around the province, has utilized resources available through the provincial Safe Schools, Safe Communities initiative to develop an overall safe-school plan. Staff at Clinton have worked hard to create a school-wide plan that fits their needs. They’ve attended the annual Making Connections conference on effective behaviour support, and have drawn upon resources such as Focus on Bullying: A Prevention Program for Elementary School Communities and a commercially available program, Positive Echoes, to better understand and address issues such as negative behaviour and poor self-esteem.

“Our safe school plan is not static or ironclad,” explains Principal Joanne Whitelaw. “It is evolving and part of a long-term commitment.” Efforts to date have been multifaceted. Before moving forward, the school surveyed staff, students, and parents about their concerns. Building on the survey results, the staff developed both prevention and intervention plans.

One simple yet effective step was the introduction of a school motto: “Bee Safe, Bee Caring, Bee Respectful,” a message delivered by the school’s bumblebee mascot. Clark says the motto has been a highlight of the plan. “We publicize it widely, in school newsletters and on posters in the hallways and classrooms,” she says. “It has created a common language and message for both students and staff.”

The motto and message are reinforced by a behaviour expectation grid, which articulates clear standards for conduct in all areas of the school. Says Clark, “It’s gratifying to see students checking their own behaviour and reinforcing one another’s behaviour using the motto.”

Consistency among staff is also seen as a key to success. The Clinton staff has developed its own behaviour response plan. Created through a collaboratively defined process, it outlines the chosen strategies for addressing problematic behaviour and reinforcing positive behaviour.

All teachers at Clinton now include the information laid out in the Focus on Bullying program in their classroom teaching, ensuring all students know what bullying is, what the school’s expectations are, and what strategies they can use to prevent or respond to bullying. Additionally, staff have been taught behaviour support and problem-solving strategies.

Clinton, like most Burnaby schools, has also introduced a peer-mediation program. Staff and students have found it to be a great way for senior students to play a proactive role in supporting their peers in resolving conflict. “Now, when students seek help from other students, they know our peer mediators have the skills to be effective problem solvers,” says Arlene Liket, the school’s counsellor. The school’s popular leadership program has also added to the improved climate. “Leadership provides real ways for younger students to see the older students contributing to the school,” says Whitelaw. “We’ve made it cool to be a leader.”

Crucial to Clinton’s safety plan is the involvement of parents. The school’s Safe School Committee includes a parent representative. Several workshops on school safety have been held for parents, and articles and information are a regular feature of school newsletters. Clark and her colleagues recognize the parallel role parents and the school play in delivering consistent messages to children that reinforce acceptable behaviour.

The school’s priorities for this year include developing a mechanism for tracking and reporting information on incidents of student behaviour, enhancing efforts to support bullied students, and continuing social skills instruction at all grade levels.

Commitment, collaboration, consistency, communication—it’s all part of the plan at Clinton Elementary. When asked about the essence of their focus on creating a safe school environment, Clark and Whitelaw echo their school’s mission statement: “Developing potential through acceptance and encouragement.”

Terry Waterhouse is manager of Burnaby School District’s Youth Services.

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