Safety First: Creating Inclusive Environments in Austin

We buckle up before driving. We exchange scissors handle first in art class. We review safety precautions on a flight.

“Safety first” is a rule of thumb that helps many of us avoid risk and injury in our day-to-day environments—including in schools. It’s hard for students to do most things involved in learning if they don’t feel safe, known, and cared for in the classroom and on campus.

It’s All Relational

“Safety can have different meanings, depending on the individual,” shares Angela Ward, Ph.D., administrative supervisor of cultural proficiency and inclusiveness in Austin ISD. “Our office creates opportunities for adults to discuss what safety means to them. By creating a common language, leveling the power dynamics between adults, and giving space for conversations, we as leaders can cultivate a greater sense of safety. Ultimately, if adults don’t feel safe, welcome and included, how can our children?”

“We have to start building relationships with students from the beginning of the year,” adds Ward. “Without relationship, students respond to fear by being closed off and protecting themselves, instead of being open, allowing us to respond to their needs.”

Mental Health Detectors Over Metal Detectors

The Texas Legislature passed a bill in 2019 to increase guidance and supports necessary to improve campus safety, including teacher training, mental health efforts and physical security measures. Austin ISD has responded by putting in place systems, structures and policies. It has been systemically implementing broader social and emotional practices and programs since 2011 as part of CASEL’s Collaborating Districts Initiative.

“While creating safe physical environments is important, adding restrictions against potential threats (i.e. adding metal detectors) might actually compromise school climate and hinder cultural proficiency goals,” notes Twyla Williams, Ed.D., administrative supervisor over counseling, crisis, and mental health in Austin ISD. “That’s why we focus more on mental health detectors over metal detectors.”

 “Students need to be able to trust adults and feel connected to those around them,” adds Peter Price, Ph.D., director of social and emotional learning. “If all students feel safe, included and valued, there’s a better chance violent acts, behavioral disruptions and bullying will lessen on campus.”

To create safe, inclusive learning environments, Austin ISD is expanding its Trust-Based Relational Intervention professional development, deepening its social and emotional learning (SEL) work, implementing culturally responsive restorative practices, and increasing its mental health supports district-wide.

 Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI)

  • Approximately 4,000 Austin ISD staff trained to implement these interventions
  • Intentional expansion of this work beyond Pre-K through second grade to full elementary and secondary campuses and their community partners

Social & Emotional Learning

  • 12 dedicated specialists partner with campus leaders to create based on student climate survey and other relevant data
  • Three signature SEL practices (welcoming ritual, engagement strategies and optimistic closing) and mindfulness practices are promoted and embedded, from boardroom to classroom

Cultural Proficiency & Inclusiveness

  • Three staff support all campuses to provide community building, relationship-based restorative practices, and an additional 8 staff support school implementation 
  • A professional learning series promotes creating space for adults and students to be open and share their unique experiences around identity

Mental Health

  • Professional school counselors create a foundation for mental health support for all students
  • Mental health clinics are accessible for students, families and staff at 43 campuses
  • Staff can review individualized student data to have proactive conversations and tease out potential threats
  • All campuses have crisis response teams 

In service to the above initiatives, Austin ISD offers multiple supports, including but not limited to:

  • Professional learning for teachers, counselors and campus staff around identity, bullying, suicide awareness, healthy relationships, and considerations for students with special needs so these adults can offer proactive interventions.
  • Interventions like TBRI, community building circles, restorative practices, and community partners who provide mental health interventions and services provide students with safe spaces to address trauma in their lives.
  • Student groups/committees including Peer Assisted Leadership, Gay Straight Alliance, and No Place for Hate enable students to support one another and raise student voice on issues of concern.
  • Counselors have a set safety curriculum they teach each year. Teachers provide explicit SEL lessons that reinforce the counseling curriculum. Some are developed at the campus level to address data-informed topics or respond to specific incidents in the campus community.
  • Parent outreach includes principal chats, book studies and trainings around topics like cyber safety and healthy boundaries, which help caregivers extend learning into the home environment.

“Professional learning is key in being proactive rather than reactive,” shares Caroline Chase, M.Ed., assistant director of social and emotional learning. “Teachers must understand what processes are in place, what support is accessible, and how to utilize their own social and emotional competencies in order to create a relationship-based, inclusive environment that supports differences and empowers students.

Understanding how to respond to our emotional and physical safety needs as adults allows us to address the needs of students with empathy. We need to put on our own oxygen masks, so we can keep those around us safe.”

District research indicates that the practices and supports described above have a positive impact on students. According to Austin ISD’s most recent report “A Comparison of AISD District-Wide Surveys” published June 2019, students’ perceptions of safety at school ranged from 3.2 at middle school to a high of 3.58 at elementary school, with high school being at 3.32. Items were rated on a scale of 1-4, from 1 being never to 4 being a lot of the time. Families’ perceptions were consistent with students’ perceptions at the elementary and middle school levels.