Asking Questions at School to Keep Our Kids Safe


By Sara Kennedy, Hands & Voices

Stories of bullying and abusive situations for children who are deaf or hard of hearing (and all kids) can leave a parent wondering what they can do to protect their children. As we have been studying this issue for several years now through the O.U.R .Children’s Safety Project at Hands & Voices, a small group of parents and professionals came up with some practical, concrete steps that parents can take in the realm of the IEP table. Highlights of this information as well as ideas for goals to relate to child specific skills were also shared at the recent Hands & Voices Leadership Conference in Hood River, Oregon.

Shining a light on the policies and procedures a school or district has in place to protect all kids, and particularly kids with special needs who are at two to three times greater risk of experiencing bullying or abuse is a first step. How would a parent do that? Any parent can ask the following questions at any time, but these questions would seem completely natural and expected particularly when a student is enrolling in a new program, transitioning between buildings, having a change of primary teachers, bus drivers, or other key staff, or moving into a new community.

Questions that every school district and program should be able to answer:

  • Are established, clear, legal policies, procedures and programs implemented for background checks on all employees and volunteers?
  • How is the staff provided with ongoing professional development concerning the prevention, recognition, reporting and response to suspected and confirmed instances of child maltreatment?
  • What provisions are put in place to make teachers and staff aware of increased risk of maltreatment among children with any special need?  
  • What procedures are put in place regularly to provide more supervision during less structured times of the school day for all students and with regard to children with special needs in particular?
  • Is the staff regularly trained and updated in knowing how to report and respond to suspected and confirmed instances of child maltreatment in a child centered manner? (Red flag: if this report is only made to a supervisor, who then notifies authorities, the report may lack detail or not be made at all.)
  • Is there a student focused, age appropriate curriculum concerning teaching students their right to say “NO?”
  • Does that curriculum provide an understanding of what maltreatment is?
  • Does that curriculum provide for teaching how to recognize, avoid, or when necessary how to respond and effectively communicate unsafe situations in the community, at home and at school?
  • Is there a curriculum that helps children understand their own emerging sexuality? (Certainly parents may also teach this at home.)
  • Is there instruction on cyber safety?
  • Is there instruction on teen dating violence?

We know, too, that teaching social skills and self advocacy skills directly can have a huge impact a child’s ability to say “NO!” when an unsafe situation first begins before it escalates into something more hurtful or damaging to the child. Asking these questions before an IEP or before even enrolling would pave the way toward creating effective services to promote these skills for their child.

Questions to ask about self-advocacy and social skills:

  • How are parents supported to assist their children to be effective self advocates?
  • Does the school promote goal setting, instruction and services directed at developing both these kinds of skills?
  • Are all students encouraged to be effective first responders when they observe bullying or maltreatment?
  • How frequent is the communication about safety between teachers and students, and teachers and parents?
  • Are parents supported by the school in working with their children…
    • in learning what is not safe in relationships, recognizing unsafe situations and how to respond when they feel threatened; the difference between age appropriate friendships and individuals who do not maintain safe boundaries with a child?
    • to learn the difference between “surprises” vs. “secrets?”
    • to develop a list of safe adults to tell if a child’s right to say “NO!” is not respected?
    • to develop a special “safety phrase” for children when they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation? (A child should know that if this safety phrase is used, a parent will immediately come to get them, with no questions asked, and show a willingness to listen and support them regardless of where children are and who is with them.)

School staff who prioritize children’s safety will not hesitate to explore these questions with interested parents. Parents may be greatly reassured by the answers, or it may be clear that more work is needed to create a safe school community and open communication. Either way, it is better to seek out needed information than to assume that someone has already asked these questions. Let’s help all students be safer in schools, at home, and in the world.

For more information, see the wiki site for collaborative learners on this project at  or join in the monthly conference call by contacting We are particularly looking for parents and professionals to share experiences of supporting a child’s success and safety on the wiki site.

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