Keeping it Real: Creating a “Culture of Safety” in Schools

Teenagers have an incredible B.S. detector. It is important for them to know that someone is ‘keeping it real,’” says Erin Gruwell, innovative educator, author of the book “Freedom Writers” and consultant for the “Freedom Writers” movie starring Hilary Swank as Gruwell.

“Every teenager needs to have at least one caring adult that believes in them and can see their promise and potential regardless of test scores, the color of their skin, their socio-economic level and their past indiscretions,” says Gruwell.

As a young teacher in an inner city school, Gruwell struggled to help her students succeed within a culture of violence, discrimination, and anger. Gruwell’s single-minded dedication to her “unteachable, at risk” students resulted in phenomenal success.

As students opened up to Gruwell, and to one another, about their personal struggles, they began to blossom and succeed. All of the Freedom Writers students graduated from high school and most went on to college.

The Mental Health Association in Tulsa has established its own innovative program, SafeTeam, in Tulsa area schools. According to Chris Siemens, Youth Outreach Services and SafeTeam Director for the Mental Health Association, the goal of SafeTeam is similar to Gruwell’s, “to provide students with a culture of safety within schools.”

“SafeTeam was developed after a cluster of suicides in an area school in 1997,” says Siemens. “Students wanted to learn how to help other students in need.”

SafeTeam programs are now playing an active role in 18 Tulsa area schools, providing students with confidential, non-judgmental, caring teens and professional adult advisors to help resolve personal issues such as suicidal and violent behaviors, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, eating disorders, depression and other forms of mental and physical illness.

According to Siemens the SafeTeam mission is to create a “healthy school culture” which actively listens to students—“seeking them out before they are so desperately in need of help that they are driven to extreme actions.”

Corbin Wallace, a junior at Cascia Hall Preparatory School, has been involved with SafeTeam since his freshman year in high school. When three Cascia Hall students died in a plane crash last year, Corbin and the other members of the SafeTeam program at Cascia stepped up.

“We had a lot of meetings around that time,” says Corbin, who was friends with the three students. “We talked about what happened and discussed how we could help others.”

Students helping other students is what both the SafeTeam program and the Freedom Writers program are about. “In my classroom the Freedom Writers had a duel role of being both students and teachers,” says Gruwell. “I believe that when a student is able to help another student, it becomes a very synergistic, exciting student-centered environment.”

In addition to committed, caring students, SafeTeam also depends on the non-judgmental support of the SafeTeam coordinator— an adult who works, much like Gruwell, within the school, building trust and acceptance with students. The goal is to prevent small problems from escalating into big ones.

In October the Mental Health Association of Tulsa is having a SafeTeam conference to provide training and support for SafeTeam members. When SafeTeam students were asked who they would most like to hear speak at the conference, Erin Gruwell’s name kept popping up. The SafeTeam coordinators were thrilled when Gruwell agreed to be the keynote speaker at the SafeTeam conference in October.

Like Gruwell before them, Corbin and the other SafeTeam members are working hard at “keeping it real” within their schools.

“We work in the background,” says Corbin. “We do a lot of listening and comforting others.”

For more information about Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers Foundation visit

Categories: Teens, Tweens & Teens