The Grassroots Leadership Team at United Way of Salt Lake works to engage community members in conversations about their experiences to create a system where the experiences of those most impacted by issues are guiding the solutions. They do this by first completing community-based research projects to illuminate the stories of those in our communities, then developing actions within the community and institutions to make lasting change. During their fellowship with the Grassroots Leadership team, Bianca Paulino organized a project focused on increasing student safety and parent confidence in measures being taken to increase safety.
The concept of student safety encompasses a range of home, school, and community factors that impact student performance and behavior. It’s important to identify these factors and protect students as they gain new autonomy and explore new freedoms during middle school and high school. The idea for this project came from my personal experiences and observations as someone who grew up, lives, and works in Kearns.
The importance of this topic became more and more clear to me through conversations I had with other community members and through my first-hand experience working at the Kearns Library. Some of the initial concerns that arose centered around the lack of supervision when students walked to and from school. This was relatable to me — I have a younger sister attending Kearns High School and I feel similar worries when she walks home from school. The need to address student safety concerns was reinforced when the library was closed for remodeling; I saw the importance of the library as a place in the community where students could gather, play, and learn with adult supervision. When the library wasn’t available, concerns arose about where students would go after school and how they would access key resources such as free lunch, internet, and printing that the library had provided.
Because my experiences and observations are not those of the entire community, and because we all have different experiences with safety, I embarked on this project with the intention of better understanding the experiences of parents and caregivers in ensuring the safety of their children. I started by researching what currently exists in the community that lets parents and caregivers know their children are safe.
After brainstorming in October, I used my own observations and experiences and those of other community members I knew to create a problem tree in order to pinpoint the causes and effects of student safety problems. While there were a few safety concerns identified, it was clear more research needed to be done on the topic. In November, I decided to conduct interviews with parents in the community to listen to their first-hand experience.
The problem tree created during the brainstorming process helped guide the process of creating interview questions. The questions primarily focused on the experiences of parents with student safety in the community.
• What currently exists in your community that helps you know as a parent or caregiver that your student is safe?
• Can you tell me about a time when you felt concerned as a parent or caregiver about your student’s safety?
• Could you list things that can be done in order to improve your student’s safety?
Participant Criteria & Sample Size:
I chose to focus on interviewing parents of students attending middle school or high school due to the age range of students at these schools. I decided to focus on this age range because teens are encountering new situations at school and in the community as they’re gaining and exploring new autonomy.
Seven parents of students at the schools identified, including both Spanish and English-speaking parents
Outreach began in the middle of November when I talked with gatekeepers in the community. The gatekeepers included school, community center, and United Way staff working in Kearns. It was difficult connecting with possible participants this way because I wasn’t contacting them directly, so I created a Facebook post on a local Kearns Facebook group. In this post I explained my connection to the community and interest in learning more about their experiences. Many community members responded to the post with interest and after I reached out to them directly, seven of these community members became participants in the focus group.
Information Collection and Analysis:
I conducted one-hour Zoom or phone interviews during the last week of November. These interviews were recorded, transcribed, and translated for coding and analysis. I began the coding process in December and used a coding software, Dedoose, to find common themes throughout the interviews. I focused on highlighting common themes that came up frequently in all the interviews. From there I worked to develop three overarching themes, one subtheme, and descriptions supported by evidence. This process, known as triangulation, allowed me to validate, or confirm, the final findings of this focus group.
After the coding and information analysis process, I identified the following as the key student safety concerns of the parents I interviewed.
Finding 1: A Place to Go
Parents feel that there are few safe places in the community for students to go where the children are supervised. Parents identified that having few or no safe places with activities for students results in boredom that leads to students acting out or engaging in dangerous activities.
A parent of a junior high school student shared,
“They have too much time on their hands to do things like drugs, ‘oh my mom’s not gonna know, I can get high between three and six, bring people home and do other things.’ I know for a fact that a lot of stuff happens between school and dinner time.”
Finding 2: Safety Concerns Taken Seriously
Parents shared different experiences with how school staff has handled safety concerns brought up by students or parents. These experiences result in parents having varying levels of trust and confidence that their concerns will be sufficiently addressed by the school.
A parent of a high school student shared,
“It got to the point where she had bruises, they were pulling her hair. I went into the school and the principal was just kinda like, ‘oh’, kind of just brushed it off. And I’m like, no, it’s to the point where this person is terrorizing her, and you guys need to do something about it. They wouldn’t even say anything to the person until it got to the point where she didn’t want to go to school.”
A contrasting experience was shared by a parent of junior high school student,
“There was a group of children who tried to jump him. They tried to hit him on the way to school. He went inside the police station. I went to the school and the principal attended me. The director took things seriously. He talked to him and said don’t be afraid to tell me. He [the director] told him things where I realized that he was going to be fine going to school, that I didn’t have to be left with the fear that this was going to happen again.”
Finding 3: Walking To and From School
Parents shared concern and fear for students who have to walk along or cross main roads such as 5400 South. Their main concerns are about dangerous driver behavior, lack of crossing guards or lights, and past accidents involving students.
A parent of a junior high student shared,
“I’m a little scared because not long ago they ran over his friend. The boy had the right of way, he went through the traffic light that is near the fire station. The child is still recovering. Then there is that fear of knowing that my son is going to have to go through there. At least four days a week. And that maybe a driver, who is in a hurry, is not going to wait for them to finish passing.”
Invite community members and community institutions (library, recreation center, schools, churches, etc.) to continue having conversations in order to work together to address the concerns and begin to create a safer community for our students.
By Bianca Paulino, Grassroots Leadership Organizer at United Way of Salt Lake