We Need Change: A school should be like a sanctuary or a safe haven.

BY

Umar Bavani
Ashleigh Washington

For communities and advocates, fixing school discipline often focuses on the immediate harm students face from harsh, punitive, and prison-like discipline practices in schools. However, it is equally important to imagine and embody how we want our schools to shape a better future for our students. These vision building conversations are often derailed because communities have to defend against narratives about “safety” that incorrectly assert that the source of danger for schools is the students themselves.

Here, instead we turn to which aspects of our current school systems are broken and what we need to repair to fix them–relationships. Umar Bavani is a student at Central High School Mar Vista Gardens. As part of our Student Voices Series, he shares his experience attending Central, after leaving a traditional comprehensive high school. Umar shows us how to create an environment that supports students and meets them where they are academically and emotionally. He tells us what is possible when we truly listen to young people. When we take school climate out of the context of fear-based policies and expanding criminalized punishment, the remaining frame is simple: respect and dignity for all of our students.

When I first came to Central High School, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know my classmates or my teacher and they didn’t know me aside from my name. But, as days went by I got to know them and my teacher. I thought it was helpful to have community circles where you and your classmates have conversations about anything. I feel like it’s like something different than everyday life. You really get to hear what your classmates are going through and dealing with. Sometimes it’s an escape from reality. Community circle is a check-in where classmates sit in a circle and talk about anything that’s on their minds.. It’s not just one person leading the circle, but everyone coming together collectively as a class. I think it made me open up a little bit.

Vitaly, my teacher, also made me feel like I’m a part of the class. When I would walk in he would greet me and others as a friend, “What’s up, Umar!” “How you doin’ my friend?” I thought it was weird because that never happened to me until I started going here. He also makes food for us which helps me concentrate on my work because when I have an empty stomach, I can’t focus. I feel like if teachers cared about their students the way Vitaly cares about us, other schools would be more welcoming and safe.

I think a way for teachers to show their students they care about them would be by just simply asking the student how he/she is doing. To me, that is one of the steps to building a healthy relationship with a student. I believe when a student gets searched at school it makes them feel like a criminal and makes them not want to attend school. I don’t think that a feeling like that should happen in a school. A school should be like a sanctuary or a safe haven. Searches are humiliating when done in the hallways of schools or just outside a classroom, not to mention that the students lose important class time.

I think it’s essential to have a good relationship with a teacher because it can help you in the long run and help you pass that class with ease. If the communication is good between the student and teacher, the teacher will know or figure out how the student can be successful in the class. I also believe that it is a process because the teacher might have to change their way of doing things to better support the students, or maybe the student needs to change something– it works both ways. I hope by the time I’m in college, schools have more counselors, therapists, resource centers, and teachers that actually try to understand what their students are going through. People may not like change because it’s new and unfamiliar, but we must consider the consequences of our policies and practices. Do we want a world full of criminals or brilliant and compassionate scholars? Zoe Weil said, “The world becomes what we teach.”

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