In the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, school districts around the country are reviewing their use of School Resource Officers (SROs). And while the debate rages on among city councils, school administrations, and police departments, traditional approaches to exploring complex topics such as school safety often fail to include the most critically affected stakeholders. In this case, that would be the students and parents. This article illustrates how schools and communities can use #participatorybudgeting to engage all the desired stakeholders to create safe and effective learning environments for all students.
Participatory Budgeting for school safety
Participatory Budgeting (PB) is a democratic process in which a group of stakeholders decides how to invest a shared budget. Below is an overview of how a school or school district could use PB to engage all stakeholders in creating safe and effective learning environments:
- Establish a theme relevant to the needs of the school or school district, such as improving the relationships between students and administrators or focusing on conflict resolution.
- Identify the stakeholders who should be included in the PB cycle, notably those closest to the problem (students, teachers, parents), with potential contributions from relevant experts.
- Determine the roles of stakeholders to ensure the program is engaging each group appropriately. For example, you might specify that “any concerned citizen in the community” can submit a proposal idea, but voting and funding (explained below) could be limited to select groups of stakeholders.
- Establish the budget for the PB cycle. This budget can come from discretionary principal or district funds, a PTA/PTO, or a student fundraiser. One inspiring model comes from the Phoenix Union High School District in Phoenix, AZ. The district chose to re-allocate the $1.2M designated for their School Resource Officer program into three Participatory Budgeting cycles: a $500,000 staff-driven process, a $500,000 student-driven process, and a $200,000 parent-driven process.
- Support stakeholders as they use divergent thinking to explore the theme and generate proposals to improve school safety. This is where direct student and parent experience has the most profound impact. What might be a sensible and obvious solution to students could be novel to city council members and school administrators.
- Refine proposals to ensure they are desirable, feasible, and sustainable. As students explore each proposal, the refinement process opens doors for authentic, student-initiated learning. Refinement also provides opportunities for students to engage with technical experts, such as police officers, guidance counselors, and adults committed to the school and its community.
- Stakeholders vote on and fund the proposals they believe are most likely to meet their needs. Voting should be designed to promote dialog and debate, allowing participants to update initial ballots as more information becomes known.
- Implement the selected proposals.
Creating psychological safety in Participatory Budgeting
School safety, a complex topic, is likely to elicit strong emotions. Accordingly, this specific use of PB should also include practices to promote psychological safety. Here are a few techniques that can be used:
- Provide examples: Examples of how school safety can be improved can be useful in seeding a few ideas.
- Seek broad participation: Every student should be encouraged to participate. This doesn’t mean that every student will create or refine a proposal. However, every student eligible to vote on and fund winning proposals should be encouraged to participate as an equal member of the community.
- Use trusted adults: A trusted adult, such as a school guidance counselor, could submit proposals on behalf of any students who have had challenging or painful experiences.
- Provide clear engagement guidelines: Students need to know that proposals should be submitted with respect and concern for others.
- Provide mechanisms to flag or remove proposals: Even with clear guidelines, there is a chance that one or more students may submit an inappropriate or offensive proposal. Accordingly, protocols are needed to review potentially offensive proposals and manage them with care. Proposals dealing with sensitive topics, which may initially appear inappropriate, might be entirely reasonable with modest refinement.
- Focus on the theme: Students should never focus on a specific person. Instead, students should focus on the theme.
Creating psychological safety can be challenging, especially for schools or districts recovering from a traumatic or violent event. Stay the course, and continue to reassure all stakeholders of the commitment to safety.
Review, report, repeat
Participating schools and communities should review each proposal, reporting on the impact to all stakeholders. These data should be used as part of the input for subsequent Participatory Budgeting programs. The approaches used to create safe and effective learning environments must be adjusted annually to represent changes in student population, school funding, and the larger community.
A PB program can begin any time during a school year. However, because the scope of proposals is unknown, it can be challenging to predict when proposals should be implemented. There are two broad strategies:
- Limit proposals to those that can be implemented within the school year
- Allow proposals that may take longer than the school year to implement
In either case, all stakeholders must have transparent access to the status of proposals to monitor the program’s success.