Safe Havens

At Kansas City Public Schools, Dr. Mark Bedell is building safety, belonging, and equity.

As a teenager in Rochester, New York, Dr. Mark Bedell had two sanctuaries from the stresses of his difficult home life. One was an ice skating rink that doubled as a basketball court, where he and his buddies would shoot hoops late into the night. The other, he says, was school.

“I went through a lot growing up,” Bedell tells SchoolCEO. The oldest of eight kids, he moved in and out of different homes: his mom’s, his grandmother’s, his aunt’s. “That’s the reason I played sports three times a year,” he says. “I did everything I could to stay busy, to stay as far away from home as possible.” For a while, he was even homeless, sleeping in his car or on friends’ couches. School was an escape from the struggles of his everyday life.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t always that way. Before it became Bedell’s refuge, school almost failed him. “I had a teacher in the second grade who told me, You’re dumb, you’re ugly, and you’ll never amount to anything,” he says. The insult decimated his confidence. “I quit school,” he says. “I quit school in the second grade.” Fortunately, Bedell’s break from education didn’t last long. Later that year, a security guard found him on a weekday and asked why he wasn’t in class. Soon, he was living with his aunt and back in the classroom.

While one teacher nearly sent his life careening off the rails, another put him on a track that would define the rest of his life. “I had a 10th-grade teacher, Mr. Barrett, who basically said, You’re academically talented. You don’t even know what you’re doing by throwing it away,” Bedell says. Mr. Barrett encouraged him to find an adult to talk to, and a few weeks later, Bedell confided in him, sharing his home struggles. “He and another teacher took me under their wings and made me believe I could do more than I ever thought I could,” he tells us. He went on to be the only child in his family to earn a  diploma.

As a high school sophomore, Bedell believed he was going to the NBA—and he nearly did.  “I played ball all my years in high school and college,” he tells us. “In essence, it was my meal ticket out.” He even got an opportunity to try out for the pros. But his teachers—especially Mr. Barrett—had planted a seed that would grow into Bedell’s lifelong career. “They really did inspire me to go into education,” he says. “That’s where it began.”

A KCPS Kid at Heart

Today, Bedell serves as the superintendent of Kansas City Public Schools. He’s spent the last four years making sure kids see his schools as a refuge. Often the stories of Bedell’s students look similar to his own. Of the more than 14,000 kids at KCPS, 91% are students of color, and 100% qualify for free and reduced lunch. About 1,300 experience homelessness.

“Those four walls should be a safe haven for kids,” he tells us. “School should be a welcoming environment, regardless of how you show up. You don’t have to be embarrassed about being  poor or having a parent who’s addicted to drugs. When you’re going through abuse, or you’re homeless, or you don’t have food, we are going to take care of you.”

This is Bedell’s first superintendency. Starting out as a second-grade teacher, he served as a principal and later School Improvement Officer at Houston ISD before becoming Assistant Superintendent for High Schools at Baltimore County Public Schools. In 2015, just before coming to KCPS, he completed his doctoral dissertation at Nova Southeastern University, with a focus on school climate and culture.

“Climate sets the tone for how kids will see schooling,” he says. “I always believed there was some level of correlation; if you improve school climate in particular, what changes? Are there reduced suspensions? Are there higher GPAs? Does the graduation rate increase? Do attendance rates increase?” Given Bedell’s background, it’s not hard to see where this interest started. “It was personal for me,” he says, “because I’m always trying to figure out: How do we make kids want to be in school?”

That’s the question he’s been trying to answer since he first set foot on KCPS’s campuses as super in 2016. “When I interviewed for this job,” he says, “I told them: I don’t have experience as a superintendent. I may not be the most polished candidate to grace this stage, and I am not a political person. If you’re looking for those three characteristics, I’m not your guy. But I have a heart. I’ve lived through what these kids have lived through.” He may have gone to school in Rochester, but he could just as easily have grown up in this very district. “I am a KCPS kid,” he says. “I just happen to be one who made it.”

Needless to say, he got the job.

Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Before he even began, Bedell knew that to create a culture of emotional safety at KCPS, he needed to make sure each child in the district received the same treatment, the same opportunities. After he completed his first 100 days in office, listening to and learning from his community, he immediately recommended that the school board craft a formal equity policy. They agreed.

“Our equity policy really does focus on trying to dismantle a system built on systemic racism,” Bedell says. Take, for example, the way the district distributes funding among its schools. “The data was telling us that the schools in the poorest zip codes, which generally serve the highest percentage of African American students and Latino students—those are the neighborhood schools that are constantly falling further and further behind. But we give extended resources to our signature schools”—magnet schools that operate under more of a choice model. “Our board’s been very intentional in wanting to figure out how we can dismantle these practices that have plagued this city for decades,” he says.

Just a few years later, the KCPS team is already seeing the fruits of that equity policy. Graduation rates have shot up; this year, they’re expected to hit 75%, a record high for the district. Attendance rates are climbing, too. But these high-level changes are not enough, says Bedell. “We haven’t done any unpacking of our existing administrative and board policies that may be written in a very oppressive nature,” he tells us. “The next phase of our work is to start dismantling some of those policies and making them align with our overarching equity policy. That’s where you begin to influence practices inside of your schools.”

Bedell is especially interested in examining the district’s disciplinary policies. Though suspension rates at KCPS have gone down over his four years as super, students who do face suspension are still disproportionately students of color.

“We’ve got to change the mindset of how our people look at applying disciplinary infractions,” he says. “If a kid writes on the school building with chalk, we should just tell them not to. That shouldn’t go into the system as a Level 3 vandalism citation.” Those citations, he knows, can go on to affect a student for the rest of their life. “We don’t want to be a school district that is complicit in perpetuating the school-to-prison pipeline because we are suspending kids for subjective things at such an early age. We have to ask ourselves: Does the language in our policies leave it open for implicit biases to ultimately railroad a kid’s future?”

And no one—not even a Black leader like Bedell—is exempt from the rigorous work of combatting personal prejudice. “Even people of color show up with implicit biases,” he says. He tells us the story of an 11th-grader he nearly suspended as an administrator at Houston ISD. “I was riding this kid because he was sagging,” he says. “I kept telling this kid to pull up his pants, and he would always look at me with this attitude. I saw it as disrespect because he wasn’t doing what I wanted him to do.”

Finally, Bedell called the student into his office to suspend him. “And he touched my shoulder, and I looked at him, and he had a tear coming down his face,” he tells us. “He said, You mean to tell me you’re getting ready to suspend me? You don’t even know me. I come to school everyday, I don’t get in trouble, I’m minding my business. Maybe if you took time to get to know me, you would know that I’m homeless. I don’t have anywhere to live, and I’m more worried about that than my pants.

“It just floored me,” Bedell says. “I told him I had been homeless, too, and we vibed from then on. He had respect for me because I had a relationship with him. Then we didn’t have that issue anymore. I didn’t suspend him.”

Bedell is quick to point out that as a teenager in Rochester, he sagged his pants, too. “But I’ve moved up a couple of socioeconomic classes, and now I have these different ideas in my head of what we should or should not accept. But those ideas are very punitive, and that’s the reason why you see the disproportionate suspension rates of African American males—and the disproportionate rates at which they go to jail. It starts with schools.”

We Will Speak

When the police killing of George Floyd rocked the nation in May, Bedell and his team knew they could not remain silent. Black kids at KCPS needed to know that their teachers and administrators cared about them, loved them, would fight for them. They needed to know they mattered.

The statement Bedell and the school board released on June 3 is nothing less than an emphatic declaration of support for Black students. “Black lives matter in Kansas City Public Schools,” it begins. “This is simple and true. We say it proudly and we will act on it as individuals and as a public school system urgently and intentionally.”

But the statement also goes beyond stating fact; it promises action. “When we see those names”—George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor—”we see our own children,” it reads. “We will speak and take action on their behalf. We will defend the lives of our Black and brown children.” It also calls on “our partners in the business, philanthropic, civic, and faith communities to stand with us in active engagement to tear down the institutional barriers that have long been foundational in this country.”

These are powerful words, but it’s the legacy of action behind them that makes kids feel safe at KCPS. “It’s easy to prove to people that I’m not just throwing around a buzzword like equity,” Bedell says. “I’ve been doing this work since I got here.”

Well before Dr. Bedell’s tenure, KCPS publicly advocated for their kids. In 2010, it was one of the first public school systems in the nation to add gender identity and sexual orientation as a protected class under their non-discrimination and harassment policy. Under Bedell’s leadership, that legacy has only grown. The district has often spoken out against wrongful evictions. They’ve publicly refused to support ICE raids. In 2017, as Islamophobia flared up across the country, KCPS implemented an anti-bullying resolution specifically to protect Muslim kids.

Some leaders may shy away from taking such public stands on controversial issues, but not Bedell. “I don’t do things for political reasons,” he tells us. “I do things based on values and beliefs around how to best advocate for the kids that I’m serving. I’m not going to compromise my values and beliefs just to keep this job, to keep this nice paycheck. That is not why I got into education in the first place. If I’m going to create enemies, I’m going to do it on behalf of these kids who don’t have anybody out here to fight for them.”

Reimagining SROs

For a few school districts across the country, responding to the Black Lives Matter movement has meant severing ties with local police departments. But at KCPS, School Resource Officers—SROs—are a crucial part of the web keeping students feeling safe and welcome at school. Since 2015, Bedell has sat on the board for the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), the largest school policing organization in the country. He says he’s “a huge supporter of security officers and SROs in schools”—as long as they’re properly trained.

“SROs are individuals who have been trained specifically to serve in our schools,” he explains. “We need to decouple that from the larger conversation about police reform. There needs to be broad and deep reform of policing, not just in Kansas City, but across the nation. All those issues around how police are trained, how they’re equipped, all those kinds of issues—that’s separate from the fact that we have individual SROs who are very high-quality.”

At KCPS, SROs wear khakis and polo shirts instead of traditional police uniforms; “I want them looking like they’re a part of the school,” Bedell says. They also have a clearly defined role—and it’s not disciplinary. “As a superintendent, my job was to let everyone know that it’s not the responsibility of SROs to go into a classroom and address a kid who has their head down,” he says. “Their job is to be visible, to give everybody a sense of safety, a sense that we’re not going to have a school shooting on our campus.” For SROs to maintain that role, administrators and teachers need training as well. “You don’t call an officer to come and handle a routine disciplinary infraction,” says Bedell. “That’s where you cross the line and start to have a lot of issues.”

Just like the rest of the staff, SROs receive trauma-informed training, conflict resolution training, and implicit bias training. They travel to NASRO’s annual conference to get what Bedell calls “the best professional development available in this country,” with sessions on developing successful relationships with diverse students, becoming aware of implicit biases, and more.

SROs are also encouraged to build relationships with the district’s kids. Many participate in mentoring or coaching sports. And thanks in large part to this training and relationship building, KCPS is “one of the safest school districts in the area,” Bedell tells us. “We also haven’t had to deal with local or national media because SROs are inappropriately handling students.” At KCPS, SROs aren’t meant to be a source of fear; they’re an integral part of the district’s mission to help kids feel a sense of safety and belonging.

The G.O.A.T.

Decades removed from the teenager who shot hoops on that Rochester ice rink, Bedell hasn’t forgotten his first love: basketball. The skills he learned on the court, he tells us, helped make him the successful superintendent he is today.

“Basketball created a leader,” he says. “I ended up becoming a team in college at a very early age. It taught me how to collaborate with people, work with people, treat people right. It’s a very influential piece of my life, and even at the age of 46, I still use it as a way to bond and connect with the community at large. That’s what works for me.”

In just four short years, Bedell has won the trust of the Kansas City community, trust that allows him to accomplish the district’s important equity work successfully. He earned that confidence through several different avenues—for example, being the first superintendent in district history to have a child graduate from KCPS. But ultimately, much of the community’s faith in Bedell comes from something more personal: he plays ball with them. “I go into some tough neighborhoods and play pickup games—things that a superintendent has never done,” he says. “That has allowed me to get unprecedented buy-in, because most people in the community just have their guards up with superintendents.”

Before COVID-19 hit, Bedell held community open gyms on Saturdays. ”I would invite the community into one of our high schools and we’d play ball,” he says. “It’s faculty, it’s staff, it’s police officers, it’s alumni, it’s current students—and I feel like it is the most wonderful thing that we’ve been able to do.” In the wake of the virus, though, these and other community-building events are on hold, and the separation is taking a toll on the superintendent. “It’s very depressing,” he told us honestly. “Not being able to see a lot of our kids, connect with them, encourage them—it’s been hard. It’s been very hard.” But Bedell is hopeful that before too long, he’ll be shooting hoops with his students again.

One story he shared from the basketball court sent Bedell into a fit of laughter before he could even start telling it. “I played in a fundraiser this past year with people who were 40 and up,” he says. He can hold his own even against high school students, but against people his own age? “I gave these guys the business, I ain’t even gonna lie to you.” A few high school students came to watch the game. “They nicknamed me the G.O.A.T.,” he tells us, cracking up again—the Greatest of All Time.

Bedell thinks it’s funny, and it is. But there’s something compelling about Black and brown boys in a largely impoverished district giving their superintendent a nickname typically reserved for Lebron James or Michael Jordan. They admire him; that much is clear. But when they look at him, what do they see? A mind-blowing basketball player, sure; but at a deeper level, these boys—and all of his students—see a Black man in a position of leadership. They see a man who cares enough about them to play basketball in the streets. They see possibilities for their futures. Maybe, in Bedell, they see a safe haven: a pair of wings under which to grow.


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