school is not a safe space

I don’t know about anyone else, but for me, school is not a safe space. I am referring to the pervasive sense that if I spoke about my real issues (suicidality, depression, my gender), I would get reported to the school administration and possibly the police. Keep in mind that I am white, and I cannot speak directly to black experiences, but I know that some black kids I grew up with felt this pressure tenfold.

The government has established that while students are on or using school property they have little expectation of privacy from the school. Students have very few rights because the government considers itself responsible for students when they are on or using school property. So essentially the government is the worlds worst parent and we all are just lying to our students if we tell them they can trust any type of school official with any type of personal or sensitive information. The school will use the information against the student in the name of “safety”, and if not for safety’s sake, then they will invent some other reason.

“School districts have been clear students shouldn’t have an expectation of privacy but they haven’t been as clear about what they are tracking, how they are tracking it, how long they keep that information. They really should be doing that.”

74 article, Laird

They already tape students while they are on school grounds and schools rarely, if ever, disclose what those cameras record, and how long the footage is stored. I imagine that school administrations see little to no difference between this practice and monitoring their students computer activity.

It is because of this attitude that I never trusted school officials with sensitive information, and I always tried to impress upon other students that school is not a safe space. I know that this is a really controversial stance to take, but as a former troubled teen myself, I feel I can speak on this.

My own experiences with opening up at school traumatized the heck out of me. I had the school police officer corner me in a private section of the library and question me after I approached the school nurse asking to go home and was honest about how I didn’t care for a teacher because her voice regularly gave me a headache. For some reason, the nurse decided that was cause enough to warrant a police officer’s involvement, so she sent me out of her office into the back portion of the library. The next thing I know, I have the school police officer approach me, direct me to a private alcove, block my ability to physically leave the conversation by putting me in a corner and standing directly in front of me, and then proceed to question me about any “violent thoughts or tendencies” I may be experiencing. I was 14. The whole interaction lasted less than 10 minutes but it made me incredibly distressed and I never opened up at school again.

I’m not alone. This type of overreaction is still a major part of public schooling, and the adoption of technology in schools is making this easier. A transgender eighth-grader mentioned his recovery from an attempt to die by suicide in a school assignment. The assignment was subsequently flagged by the assignment monitoring program Gaggle, and a school administrator was notified that a student had used the word “suicide” in an assignment, without providing the greater context of the assignment. The student’s parent was notified without telling the student that they would be. The student learned this lesson the hard way, he felt betrayed, and rightfully so. No one had ever told him that school is not a safe space, in fact, it seems like the teacher encouraged vulnerability with the assignment (a part of which can be seen here in the article by the 74 million).

school is not a safe space
Photo by Tamanna Rumee on Unsplash

“I was trying to be vulnerable with this teacher and be like, ‘Hey, here’s a thing that’s important to me because you asked,”

the student was quoted as saying.

This is how schools handle sensitive student issues. Thinking a school is equipped to handle things like this is similar to an adult thinking that HR is on their side. HR serves the interests of the company, and school officials serve the interests of the school, regardless if they have convinced themselves otherwise. I want to think that teachers who encourage students to be open are not motivated by malice or ill intent. I think they genuinely believe that they are there to help. They are bought in to the school system. But when push comes to shove, and the school administration requires the teacher to report something, it is out of the teacher’s hands. Many teachers do not consider this before encouraging openness. Many believe that if something is escalated then it will truly be in the best interest of the student, despite all evidence to the contrary. And the teacher doesn’t want to lose their job, so perhaps they need to believe that the manner in which they are legally bound to handle sensitive situations ultimately serves the students interests. Otherwise, how could they sleep at night?

This is an understandable and human rationale. What we can understand from this unfortunate reality of the system is that we need to educate our parents and students on the true nature of public school. I will say it again, for the people in the back, school is not a safe space.

Everyone should go into a school environment with the full knowledge that there is no expectation of privacy for information that is disclosed in school. Personal issues should not be discussed with school officials if the student is uncomfortable discussing the issue with the parents present. That is the standard for the information that students should feel comfortable disclosing to any school employee, or more recently, on any school computer. If this makes you uncomfortable, I encourage you to look further into how our public school system is not designed to support students, but is designed to support the salaries of the people who work within the system. This is simply the reality of running a public school system in a hyper-capitalist society, and we shouldn’t be deluding our students into thinking that the system is for them when it clearly is not. This will only jeopardize the safety of our most vulnerable students.

If you, as a parent or other adult with a connection to a public school student, are concerned about your student, I encourage you to research your school district’s privacy policies, and speak to your school’s administration regarding how they handle students’ personal data. If you are able to, attend a school board meeting to voice your thoughts and opinions, respectfully.

And what do I propose as an alternative avenue of helping the students who need it most? It is very simple, but that does not mean it will be easy. We have to start by making mental health services free, and available to all people, but especially people under the age of 18. (It still poses something of a problem that providers have to notify parents if the minor is seeking assistance on their own, but that’s a different fight.) We have to make information on mental health resources such as hotlines, online avenues to licensed mental health practitioners, and support groups as available as schools make information on colleges. We need to make sure there is a licensed mental health professional on staff before we make sure there is a police officer. At the very least, we need to train all staff on both trauma and LGBT+ issues and how to handle topics like this in a manner that doesn’t jeopardize the mental and physical health of students. But until this happens, school is not a safe space.

Complement this with a look into some actionable tips on how to learn to love your body.