Students and faculty reflect on safe spaces at VHS
By Marlene Rulff, Reporter
There are posters across the school proclaiming that the school is a safe space for everyone, yet many students have had contrasting experiences. In response to an Instagram poll by The Riptide, 54 percent of students said they did not have a place at school where they felt they could fully be themselves, or where they felt safe.
There are conflicting ideas as to what a safe space means.
“For me, a safe space is one that combines accountability with nurturing with expression,” building substitute Callan Foster said. “A safe space is going to start with care.”
This seems to be a consensus with Vashon Island High School (VHS) students; most highlight a need to be comfortable in the rooms they’re in, and many have a fear of bullying or harm. Junior Ari Officer feels there is a lack of accountability from staff.
“Staff training is one thing that we’ve talked about in the Disability Advocacy Club, and staff [intervention]. There’s bullying at the school and staff just don’t seem to care,” Officer said.
The Disabled Advocacy Group (DAG) is a student-led club that is dedicated to creating safety and community for disabled students, and they work with the administration to troubleshoot issues students face. Principal Danny Rock acknowledged that the definition of safety is fluid, and has changed a lot in recent years; he noted that the work of the DAG was helpful.
“Safety [includes] both physical and emotional. We have had to, in some respects, redefine what it means to be emotionally safe. I think that part of our task as school administrators is to be responsive to that, and to try and figure out [what we should do to] help students be safe,” Rock said.
Some students have seen this shift in approach at VHS, and have seen the work being put in to ensure their safety, yet still feel as though something is missing.
“I’ve definitely seen more awareness, bringing a light [to issues students face], but I don’t think I’ve seen [many things] actively being done,” an anonymous freshman said.
However, creating safety and accountability takes time, and a lot of the process of dealing with discipline and consequences isn’t known or understood by the student body.
“I think that students do not fully understand the process of response to harm in the school … Let’s say a student is bullying another student, and they tell the appropriate authorities, [which leads to a] lot of conversation behind closed doors, which I think is good,” Foster said. “But, what I’ve heard from the student population is that there seems to be a kind of a disconnect from what is happening, what is perceived to be happening, and what should be happening.”
Rock laid out the steps of this process to communicate to students what would happen if they were to report an incident to a teacher or member of the administration.
“We first start with a report, and then the second thing that happens after something is reported is that there is an investigation, and that investigation starts with the victim. Then [the victim] can control that experience,” Rock said. “I will interview people, and [try to] collect evidence, collect screenshots, [we] will interview witnesses and try to determine to a reasonable observer what the truth of the situation is. And then we assign consequences.”
While this may be the objective goal, not all students have had this experience; many students find themselves lost in navigating the process of reports and investigations.
“I feel like once you report [the incident], it is just taken away from you… what the student sees is they report it and nothing happens,” Officer said.
Many students express a desire to see harsher punishment for the abuser or perpetrator, but that is not where the priorities of the administration lie.
“In school, the primary focus of consequence is through learning. The main focus is restorative justice, it’s restored relationships, it’s learning,” Rock said.
The constant, however, between students and faculty is the overall desire to keep the school a respectful and caring place, and as much of a process as it may be, both students and administrators are committed to bettering our school.
“I’m very proud [of] and grateful to our students for coming forward. I think that that’s the first thing. It’s not easy to speak out, and so students who share their story, or who confront authority, or who are trying to hold others accountable are all doing great things and are helping all of us [to] be better,” Rock said.