School’s out for the summer. But that apparent distinction – school versus no school – is not so distinct. All year long, what happens in neighborhoods affects schools, which in turns affects what happens in neighborhoods – and beyond.
Consider one example: violence. Students can’t learn in unsafe schools or when they are traumatized from exposure to violence outside the classroom. Research is clear that violence disrupts the social networks crucial for maintaining supportive learning environments. The students feel it with stress, anxiety and fear. They can’t concentrate. They might miss school. They miss out on learning.
Our whole society feels the effects of violence with depressed graduation rates, students’ unrealized potential and lost productivity. Most immediately, the effects of violence are felt in the schools by students, teachers, principals and volunteers.
If we want to do something about how violence shapes the climate of a school, and vice versa, how do we learn about it?
News coverage can help.
News is the baseline of our public conversation. It’s easy to ignore issues the news doesn’t spotlight, and hard to turn away from what is in its glare.
It’s important, then, how the link between schools and violence is told by news outlets. The questions reporters ask, and the connections they make in their stories, reveal the context around violence, and around schools. When journalists started regularly reporting whether drivers and passengers were wearing seatbelts in news about car crashes, that small bit of information in stories helped establish a new norm of seatbelt wearing. Reporters could do the same for schools and violence, but only if they connect the two.
This spring, with support from the Northern California Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit Department, Berkeley Media Studies Group examined news coverage in California, asking the question, “Do discussions about or depictions of community violence and safety appear in education stories?” To find out, we examined education stories from five major California newspapers: the Contra Costa Times, The Sacramento Bee, the Los Angeles Times, the San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle. We looked for themes that research has shown link education to violence or community safety.
For example, education stories sometimes report on high school dropout rates. Failure to complete high school is a risk factor for economic instability and contact with the criminal justice system, so ensuring that students graduate is one way that the education system can improve community safety. A news article reporting on high school graduation rates might make that connection to violence explicitly, or it might not.
Our goal was to show how education reporting might contribute to greater understanding about the link between community violence and safety and education outcomes. News coverage making those links explicit could help policymakers, educators and the public see how our education system could either alleviate or exacerbate violence.
We found that only a few education stories explicitly discussed violence and its impact on students, especially young men of color. But more than 40% of the education stories in our study touched on themes that reporters could connect to violence prevention and community safety: themes like mental health and school discipline, and conditions like poverty and homelessness, that make it harder to educate students.
We saw many stories about systemic education issues that could force students out of school, or help them succeed, with implications for students’ economic success and, ultimately, for community safety. For example, we found stories about educational opportunities, such as discounted community college tuition for low-income students, that could increase school retention rates. Students with college degrees are more likely to succeed in the workforce and less likely to be involved in crime and violence.
The connection between well-educated students and a more productive, safer society is likely obvious to educators. But those who don’t regularly read the research or consider the implications need to be reminded of those links.
We need news coverage that explicitly connects education with student and community safety in the same story, so our policymakers can see those connections, their consequences for our society, and the impact of our education system outside of schools. News is a key way legislators learn about issues. To make the connection explicit in education stories, reporters will have to talk to sources outside of criminal justice – currently the most prominent voices in news stories about violence. A broader range of sources can reveal how the education system affects everyone, from students to school superintendents to the broader community.
Without a multi-sector approach that includes education’s role in community safety, we perpetuate systems that shortchange students and undermine communities. A well-functioning education system – from preschool to higher education – would reduce violence because students would graduate from high school and be more likely to succeed at work. Perhaps most importantly, they’d be more invested in the future of their communities and be better prepared to participate in the democratic process.
We need news stories about innovative schools that have opened their doors to community groups to share spaces like playgrounds and gyms, so that young people have safe places to be during non-school hours.
We need to understand how schools have adopted trauma-informed and restorative justice practices, improving school attendance and closing the achievement gap between white students and students of color. Examples abound of schools that are fostering positive climates through violence-prevention programs both in the classroom and after school, solidifying connections to family and community in the process.
News coverage that makes the link explicit between education and community safety can help counter the consequences of disinvestment and neglect. We need reporters, producers, editors and bloggers to dig deeper and show us how education can help transform all our communities into safe and thriving places for everyone.
We can do better, but only if we have better information.
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