Schools and Their Role in Protecting Young People at Risk

I stumbled across the following statistics recently, which were compiled by Child Trends and published in Issue 109 (September/October 2013) of Adbusters magazine. These figures represent an average class of 100 graduating high school students in the United States:

• 71 have been physically assaulted
• 39 have been bullied
• 64 have had sexual intercourse
• 28 have been sexually victimized
• 21 have had a sexually transmitted infection
• 29 have suffered serious symptoms of depression
• 34 are overweight or obese
• 22 live in significant poverty
• 16 have carried a weapon in the past year
• 14 have contemplated suicide and 6 have carried out an attempt
• 10 have been raped

Whilst these statistics relate specifically to American high school students, it is still pretty scary. Furthermore, it outlines the difficulties facing schools and educators in trying to educate young people amidst the myriad social ailments and personal hardships with which they are trying to cope, often with few, if any, support networks. It would certainly be interesting to view similar statistics from within Australian schools and I would be surprised if there was much difference. Irrespective of the outcome of any such information gathering, I am quite certain that very few Australian schools are willing to address, or even acknowledge, these issues, let alone have mechanisms in place to identify and support young people.

It would be great to think that schools were responsible for more than just delivering facts and information to students. Imagine if schools actually developed a more holistic and humanistic approach that went beyond ‘education’ and developed strategies and services that provided students with information and support services. After all, the curriculum isn’t really a priority to somebody whose life is spiralling out of control, so the more we can do to balance educational outcomes and expectations with the need to ensure the safety and wellbeing of students – in or outside of the school environment – the better. When subjects like depression and suicide are taboo, when sex education is simplistic at best or simply non-existent, when bullying is rife, when sport and physical activity is being wound back and when those living in poverty are being denied access to resources and facilities because they are unable to meet the increasing costs of the so-called free public education, it would not be surprising to discover that the youth experience in Australia is very similar to the picture painted by the above figures.

Even if the figures from an Australian perspective were only half as bad as these, how can we live with ourselves? Teachers and school administrators are often best placed to have a positive influence over young people experiencing social crisis or hardship. Furthermore, schools are best placed to provide a range of support services to students, but fail to do so. Heck, some schools don’t even permit the students on the grounds more than a few minutes before the start of the school day and are quick to usher them out again as soon as the bell goes at 3:00pm. For many young people, school is their only respite from the hardships they are enduring in other aspects of their life. Schools should never be the cause of any of the experiences listed above, either directly through lack of education/action about bullying (for example), or indirectly through a failure to provide effective education and/or access to information in these areas. One teacher once told me that our role is ‘to keep them occupied between 9:00 and 3:00 and then they’re not our problem’ and I dare say that is an attitude shared, unfortunately, by many teachers. Although, of course, it would be unfair to suggest that this attitude is representative of all educators. I do think it is fair to say though that schools, by and large, don’t seem to take much interest in, or responsibility for, the welfare and well-being of students beyond the most basic of programs and support services that sound good in the prospectus but actually achieve very little.

For some students, just the opportunity to hang out in a library or computer lab or sports hall before and/or after school as an alternative to going home, may just be the thing that prevents them succumbing to harm of some kind. I have had many instances where students have asked if they can stay in the classroom after school to do work because they can’t face going home. The reasons for this are varied, such as: there is nowhere quiet to study at home or no computer available, they don’t want to be home alone, there is a fear of what/who is waiting for them at home or myriad other possibilities. For whatever reason, there is an expectation that teachers will distance themselves from students and take no interest in their social circumstances, which seems ridiculous to me. Given that many schools don’t even have so much as a full-time Guidance Officer on staff, let alone counsellors or psychologists or other professionals who might actually be able to assist students in crisis, why not draw upon the personal experiences of teaching staff who are, after all, supposed to be committed to helping their students. It seems strange to me that teachers who, in some cases, may be best placed to offer support, guidance or advice to students, are prevented from doing so. I mean, a teacher who has endured circumstances or experiences akin to those being experienced by a student might be better placed to serve as an outlet of support than a so-called expert whose only understanding of, or experience with, such an issue/circumstance is purely theoretical, particularly given that the teacher has perhaps already developed a rapport with a student through classroom interactions. That is not to say a teacher will be a suitable outlet of support in all potential scenarios, nor is it to suggest that schools shouldn’t be working very closely with health, medical and social service specialists and service providers to ensure that young people are getting access to the treatment, services and support they require. However, there is no denying that there would certainly be plenty of situations where somebody a student trusts – such as a teacher or other education professional – can draw on their own experiences to proffer advice/assistance and it would be good to think that such interactions would not be deemed inappropriate or unacceptable by bureaucrats who are no doubt well intentioned but completely removed from the reality of the perils facing so many young people.

Given that students in the state school system often have little choice what school they attend due to catchments and the like, it should be an expectation that their physical and psychological wellbeing will not be compromised simply because of the school they are required to attend. I mean, how many schools have facilities to accommodate teenage mothers and their babies? How many schools engage in meaningful dialogue and action about issues such as bullying (and accompanying attitudes such as racism and homophobia), depression/suicide, sex and sexuality or health and nutrition. How many schools offer genuine support to students and their families living in poverty? Of course schools should call upon and work with service providers across all areas of social support and welfare to get the best outcome for students and young people, but the reality is that, given the amount of time spent at school by young people, schools are often going to be on the frontline in the battle to protect them from the stresses, hardships and emotional turmoil that can cause irreparable harm to their educational outcomes. If our job is to secure the best possible outcomes for our students, then we cannot ignore our responsibilities to work with the young people in our classrooms in whatever ways we can to make sure they are able to manage those aspects of their life that serve as potential barriers to success.

Now, no doubt there are many who will declare that these are not the responsibility of schools and, in a perfect world, they would be correct. Student health and wellbeing should be the domain of parents and guardians. Well unfortunately, in far too many cases, parents abdicate their responsibilities in this regard and it is often at school where young people get their only access to responsible and caring adults. Moreover, school is often the only place where young people get access to diversity of opinion and an understanding of alternative points of view and the impact of particular actions on others and the world around them more broadly. It is not good enough to hope that parents will take their responsibilities seriously. There is too much at stake for schools to simply herd students into classrooms, throw information at them and then bundle them off home again without taking any interest in the broader context of their lives that will ultimately have such a significant impact on their educational outcomes and the rest of their lives.

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