Schools should be places where our kids feel safe, learn about themselves and their communities, and get the support they need to discover and pursue their passions. We must work together as a community to ensure the safety of our kids as they head back to school this fall. If one child feels unsafe, it can have catastrophic consequences for the school and community.
As a former middle school principal and lifelong educator, Iʼve seen firsthand how the evolution of our schools into testing assembly lines, book banning battle grounds, and prison pipelines hurts our kids. As our students head back to the classroom, itʼs time for us to work together to revolutionize their schools to prioritize their holistic safety.
Consider the state of our schools today: Young people are facing a mental health emergency and a lifetime threatened by the climate crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened our educator shortage. Toxic facilities and crumbling public school infrastructure endanger studentsʼ health and wellbeing. And unprecedented gun violence and hate make our classrooms feel more unsafe than ever.
Students, parents, and educators are clear-eyed about the urgency of this problem. But instead of addressing them, Republicans are espousing hateful rhetoric toward LGBTQ+ youth. They are banning books, attacking evidence-based and truthful teaching practices, and cutting funding for public education. And they are blocking common sense gun reform.
They’re making themselves explicitly clear: They donʼt want to keep our kids safe.
True education is a process of self-discovery and a source of freedom. Schools can and should be about more than just test scores and academics; they should be the nursery of our love for ourselves and each other, and the foundation of a democracy that works for all of us.
But young people canʼt discover the joy and power in learning in spaces where they do not feel safe, seen, and supported.
To ensure they feel safe, we have to holistically address studentsʼ (and educatorsʼ!) physical, emotional, and environmental safety. This starts with taking on the most fatal crisis facing our students: gun violence. Guns are the leading cause of death for children in America. As a principal, I stood outside the cafeteria every day during lunch to make sure my students were safe. Common sense gun reform would ensure no one can walk into a school and commit a senseless act of violence against our babies.
Gun violence is only part of the equation. Our kidsʼ physical safety also encompasses the environment they learn in. Our schools are falling apart, and redlined communities have been hit the hardest. How can we expect our kids to learn when they donʼt even have clean air to breathe in their classrooms?
Students need fresh food, green spaces, and intentionally designed infrastructure to promote their wellbeing and educational growth. Imagine if we transformed our public schools into palaces that serve as the center of our communal life and guide us into a resilient future.
To do this, we need my Green New Deal for Public Schools, which would invest in public schools as a sustainable public good, a safe space for every student and family, and a teaching lab for the next generation of STEM visionaries.
As the bill makes clear, school safety is about much more than protecting our kids from physical violence and crumbling infrastructure—because they deserve more. They deserve to discover their innate brilliance and have their minds be safe and cared for.
This means investing in school mental health professionals and initiatives. It means giving our kids opportunities to read books and learn histories that reflect their identities so they feel represented in the classroom and the world.
Unfortunately, Republicans are on a crusade to bury the stories and ideas that give students a voice. We need to fight back and empower our kids to learn about and love everyone around them, including themselves.
As they learn to love, they also deserve to feel cared for and valued by those around them. Throughout my time in education, my relationships with my friends, teachers, and students were what got me through. School can feel like an overwhelming place that moves too fast, and our kids need safe spaces and powerful support systems to help them through it.
Itʼs up to us to create those spaces through investments in sports, arts, and extracurriculars so that students have opportunities to discover their passions in healthy ways. Letʼs direct resources to public schools so that educators and staff can cultivate authentic relationships with each and every student.
When I came to my school every day, I saw limitless talent and unbridled curiosity, a testament to the joy of learning. We cannot afford to fall for Republican talking points and policies that will keep our schools unsafe every day. Our kids are our future. They can and will solve our greatest challenges and build a better society where everyone can thrive.
As students and teachers head back to their classrooms, we need to think critically about how and why to create safe schools. The people we should be listening to are kids, parents, and teachers, not pundits using attacks on public education to score cheap political points. Itʼs time to refocus the conversation around our kids and empower them by enacting policies that keep our babies safe and unlock their full potential.
Jamaal Bowman is the U.S. representative for New York’s 16th congressional district.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.