Op-Ed

School safety tax moved swiftly because the danger is real, say Lexington students

Zoe Jenkins
Zoe Jenkins

A wave of gun threats and confiscations jolted students in Lexington this past spring. In the wake of one such incident at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, one student captured a prevailing sentiment, telling us, “I seriously do not feel safe in school anymore.”

Through subsequent conversations, student-organized rallies and walkouts, we as Fayette County Public School students have articulated our frustration and our fear about guns being allowed on the premises of our schools.

We have also done copious research on the complexities of violence in school.

It is as informed and attentive young adults that we are heartened to see Superintendent Manny Caulk’s proposal for a tax increase to support a school safety plan approved by the Fayette County school board.

The plan includes both a hard and soft approach to reduce threats. In addition to providing for more law enforcement officers, emergency training, metal detectors and secure school doors, it also supports holistic strategies to improve the quality of school life. Specifically, the plan offers more mental health services, a social and emotional learning curriculum for both students and adults, and an increase in school counselors in line with the ratio of effectiveness the Student Voice Team has been advocating for several years now.

Through promoting a school climate that values student and staff well-being, the superintendent’s vision offers just what we need to both feel and be safer in school.

The assertion is backed by more than 4,400 experts around the country who signed a statement last February affirming that when it comes to school safety, these types of preventative changes are key. That is because, as it turns out, the students who bring guns to school tend to be the same people who most frequently report being ostracized or bullied themselves. As our team articulated in the wake of the Parkland, Fla. and Marshall County shootings, the logic and the research follow that if we can address student marginalization sooner, we have a much better chance of stemming school violence later.

And if student disconnection with school is an early warning sign of the potential to lash out later, then it appears we have a lot of work to do.

Over the last year, the Student Voice Team conducted student-led school climate audits in three geographically diverse Kentucky high schools. Of the 1,552 students responding to our survey, only 32 percent of students reported feeling that they are valued members of the school community, and a mere 47 percent felt they had a strong relationship with their teachers. Furthermore, just 31 percent felt attentive and invested in what they learned in school.

These numbers suggest that too many students are eking out their education in a negative school climate. Feeling excluded, isolated and disengaged characterizes their experience in school. This is especially problematic to those of us wanting to ensure all students can learn at high levels, as there is a direct correlation between a positive school climate and academic achievement. A positive school climate is essential to healthy youth development.

Given the evidence and student feedback, perhaps more Kentucky schools should follow FCPS’ comprehensive approach to keep students safe.

However, counter arguments about the speed of the school board’s approval process and the taxpayer burden are not entirely without merit. The school safety plan was passed by a committee in a few short months, and the $13.5 million price tag is considerable at a time when the state is asking schools to do so much more with so much less.

But the urgency around FCPS’ measure reflects legitimate threats to Lexington’s youth and the educators who care about us. In addition to the threats and the reality of guns making it onto our campuses, more than a few of our peers routinely face cyberbullying, family trauma, destructive relationships and depression as they struggle to focus on academics. There is little question that they — and our entire school community — could benefit from more professional support and a focus on improving school climate all around.

Before local taxpayers consider signing one of the petitions circulating to reject the school safety plan in a special election, they should consider that the cost of bolstering safety in FCPS in all of its forms is an essential investment in us and our schools.

Zoe Jenkins and Sanaa Kahloon are sophomores at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. Santiago O’Neil is a junior at Henry Clay High School. All are members of the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team which supports students as partners in efforts to improve Kentucky schools.

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