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Why The Rock School Will Never Be a Safe Space

By: Jim McKenzie


I was first introduced to the term “safe space” during the protests on the campus of the University of Missouri last fall. The campus erupted into protest when some racist comments were directed at minority students. Apparently, the college president was expected to do more to provide a safe space for students and failed. He resigned before the protests even ended.

According to the website Advocates for Youth, a safe-space is “a place where anyone can relax and be fully self-expressed, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or challenged… a place where the rules guard each person’s self-respect, dignity and feelings…”

In recent years, there’s been a major uptick in the complaints from students and their parents about how they are treated by their peers. Are kids today really that much meaner than they were a generation ago? Or, have we raised a new generation of students who must be accepted for who they are by everyone they encounter without exception?

At The Rock School, we talk a lot about raising a “Daniel Generation,” those who, like Daniel of the Old Testament, can not only survive, but can thrive in a culture that has become increasingly hostile towards Christianity.

Daniel did not demand a safe space of King Nebuchadnezzar. In fact, Daniel was mistreated, persecuted, and even thrown into the lions’ den.

Jesus said things like this… “Pray for your enemies,” “bless those who persecute you,” and “turn the other cheek.” I am confident that Jesus provided these sage words because he knew we would have enemies, suffer persecution, and be mistreated by others. His response to these things is supposed to our response too – “to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.” (Micah 6:8)

During the Mizzou protests, Brenda Smith-Lezama, the student body VP spoke to MSNBC and said this:

“I personally am tired of hearing that First Amendment rights protect students when they are creating a hostile and unsafe learning environment for myself and for other students here. I think that it’s important for us to create that distinction and create a space where we can all learn from one another and start to create a place of healing rather than a place where we are experiencing a lot of hate like we have in the past.”

Do we see the trend here? An elected leader at a large, reputable university firmly believes that the first amendment should have an asterisk next to it, limiting free speech to only those things that are not offensive to someone else.

Sadly, I would argue that a growing number of students today would agree with her.

One of our school’s core values says this:

The Rock School is a safe haven – we provide an environment where students are protected both physically and emotionally, and provide a loving atmosphere where they can grow into the person God has called them to be without fear.

Some would argue that this statement implies that we do want to be a safe space. But, it’s important to remember that our core values define who we are as a staff and organization. Our teachers and staff do work hard to provide for the students’ safety and well-being, ensuring a nurturing environment in which to grow.

But that does not guarantee an environment free of conflict. In fact, I don’t want a Christian school where we all hold hands and sing Kumbaya. I want students to grow in their character and in their Christlikeness, and that will not happen in a safe space. No, students need to encounter the brokenness of the world through conflict and disagreement and sometimes even through pain.

One of the beautiful things about The Rock School is that we get to practice being the church. Yes, we come to school, but we get to be the church. Everyday, we gather together, 450 students and teachers from different backgrounds and cultures and experiences, and each of us at a different place on our journey of faith. And we practice being the body of Christ. Everyday, we get to practice how to forgive one another, how to pray for those who mistreat us, how to mourn with those are grieving, and how to celebrate with those who are rejoicing. We learn how to make allowances for one another’s faults and to bear one another’s burdens. We don’t just study the life of Jesus in Bible class, we practice how to model it in our everyday lives too.

I don’t want any student at my school to be physically harmed or threatened. But, when a student doesn’t want to play with a peer, or thinks her shoes are ugly, or brags about getting a better grade than him, it’s not bullying.

This emphasis on anti-bullying has gone so far that we’ve taught our children to equate “he said something mean to me” to “I’m being bullied.”

It’s been my experience that much of what has been labeled as bullying by parents and students in recent years is really just a form of unresolved conflict. Can kids be mean? Absolutely! Are most of them bullies? No, not in my opinion.

I can remember a parent conference from last year, in which a parent insisted her daughter was being bullied by another nine-year-old. The parent proceeded to share with us literature on bullying that she pulled from a website established by the federal government.

And, therein lies the real problem.

We turn to the government for answers to life’s problems when we should be turning to the word of God.

Uncle Sam may try, but there’s really only one who can truly offer a safe space:

“He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High
Shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress;
My God, in Him I will trust.” (Psalms 91)

I don’t want my students to be bullied in the traditional sense of the word. But, I won’t provide a safe space for them to avoid conflict and differences and difficulty.

In fact, my prayer is that every one of them gets a good dose of it along the way.

But, I’ll make sure they find safety and support here to help them through it.

We are, after all, a safe haven.