As students across the country head back to school, there’s an undercurrent of worry behind their parents’ proud, happy faces.
Three out of four parents say they are concerned about the safety of their children while in school. Nearly half report being “very” concerned about an active shooter. That’s certainly a worst-case student safety scenario, but in-person bullying remains at the top of parents’ worry list, with 84 percent expressing concern for this issue.
Creating a truly safe educational environment involves making sure our children are free not just from the threat of physical violence, but from psychological cruelty as well. One study found that bullying doubles the likelihood of attempted suicide, and nearly one in five students between 12 and 18 say they’ve experienced it at school.
Given these realities, we must take a comprehensive look at the needs of our students and do all we can to create a safe environment conducive to academic, physical and mental well-being.
To be sure, this means working to improve the culture of individual schools and school districts. Some schools have implemented anti-bullying programs to great success; others have increased access to reporting tools, counseling and mental health resources for students. But in other instances, the situation can be so dire, it becomes impossible for a student to continue in that environment.
Whether it’s because bullying has escalated to physical intimidation, or it has resulted in the circulation of embarrassing rumors or photos, students should never be forced to enter a situation in which they feel unsafe — especially when the focus should remain on learning.
Switching schools has long been an approach taken by parents when their current situation cannot — or will not — address the problem. But in many parts of country, especially rural areas, this solution isn’t always feasible. If bullying takes place in public school, parents may not have the financial means to send their child to private school. If bullying takes place in private school, switching schools might mean sacrificing some of the academic opportunities they originally sought out. And if there’s no other school in the area, parents may feel their only option is to hope and pray their child somehow finds the strength to overcome their suffering.
For families caught in this predicament, online education can make all the difference. I’ve heard numerous stories from parents who hated seeing what their child was going through. For these families, having access to an online platform tailored specifically to the academic and social needs of their student has been transformative. These students can find relief from the stressful, high-anxiety environments of a brick-and-mortar school and learn to the best of their ability, surrounded by the loving support of their family and given the option to interact with peers — some who have had similar experiences.
Online education is not the only solution. Schools and districts must do more to solve these problems in their in-person classrooms. And in many states, legislatures need to provide the resources for schools to hire more counselors, social workers and other family supports. All schools must continue to educate and intervene, making it clear to all students that bullying in any form is unacceptable.
But for parents seeking immediate relief for a bullied child, access to online education options is critical. It empowers students to rise above their circumstances and make the most of their potential in a comfortable and fear-free setting. For every student, a computer with an internet connection is a connection to a world of opportunity, but for those being bullied, it can be a lifeline — a lifeline policymakers and educational leaders must continue to protect.
Kevin P. Chavous, a former District of Columbia City Council member, is an attorney, author, education reform activist, and president of Academics, Policy and Schools at K12 Inc.