School Climate & Safety Opinion

Putting Students First: The Importance of Information and Communication

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 24, 2015 6 min read
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We welcome guest blogger Irene E. Mullan, recently retired Associate Executive Director of Special Programs for Sedro-Woolley School District in Washington State.

The news about the incident at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina involving the forcible removal of a 16-year-old student from her high school classroom by the SRO, remains disturbing. I hope schools have used the images of that young lady being pulled out of her chair by an SRO as motivation to review and possibly revise the way they would deal with a student refusing to oblige their teachers’ request. At Spring Valley, there had to be factors in this student’s life, in her background and/or current situation that contributed to this unfortunate incident. Privacy issues prevent certain information, of course, from being disclosed resulting in readers being left with a one-sided picture of what transpired.

Numerous Questions Came to Mind as I Read the Article
What’s the background? Who is this girl, and what do we know about her; what does her school know about her? Was this girl a new student, or had she been at the school since the beginning of the school year or even before? Was she a classified student, and if so, what were the services and accommodations in her IEP? Were they being provided? Had she displayed this type of non-compliant behavior in this classroom before, or in other classes, and if so, how was it handled previously? What was known by school personnel of this student’s home life? Was there abuse and/or neglect in her background? Was she in foster care? What is the system in place, and the chain of command in this school, in terms of calling for intervention by the SRO? Did the SRO in this case know anything about this student? Had he dealt with her before? All of these questions came to my mind as I read the articles, and I believe they are important to a full understanding of what occurred at Spring Valley High School and in preventing it from happening elsewhere.

A Model That Works
The answers to these questions should be known by school personnel and addressed in a way that supports students and teachers. At the school in which I worked as a Associate Exececutive Director of Special Programs, we had systems in place to assure that we could provide students and staff with the help they need to create an atmosphere of support and to promote a healthy learning situation for all students, particularly those at risk for non-compliant and acting-out behaviors. The focus of these systems is information and communication. Those two elements are essential. A weekly meeting is held to discuss students of concern. Attendees are: the counselors, an administrator, the school nurse when indicated, a substance abuse counselor, and the school psychologist or special education director, when a special education student is involved. If an SRO is employed by the school, that person should either be included is such meetings or at least given information from the meetings that he or she would need to know in dealing with students. Newly enrolled students who seem to present with special circumstances are given extra attention to plan for a successful integration for them.

An example can help to illustrate the concept of information and communication working to facilitate the planning for such a student. A female student entered our district shortly before the beginning of the school year when her foster home had been changed and she was transferred into our district. The school counselor assigned to her case called me in, as the interim school psychologist at the time, because she had information that the student was classified. The counselor had already contacted the IEP case manager at the girl’s previous high school, to get her special education records. The counselor was told that prior to her move the team there had been considering a behavior plan for this student because of deterioration in her behavior. This told us that we had an at-risk student coming into our district.

Our subsequent actions were as follows: We gathered all of this student’s records, finding that she had been in foster care since the age of two and had multiple placements since that time, suggesting a very unstable life for many years. In addition, she had an ongoing health issue which, although not major, added to our concerns. After discussing the information we had gathered, a decision was made to meet with this girl, her foster mother and her social worker in the counselor’s office. Among other things, we learned that the student relied on the use of head phones to listen to music in class which she said helped to keep her calm and, she claimed, didn’t interfere with her learning. While talking with her, the guidance counselor developed a schedule of classes that fit her academic needs and preferences. Then the counselor set a meeting with the student, her social worker and all of her scheduled teachers. This gave the student a chance to meet her teachers prior to entering the classrooms, and for them to have a chance to get to know their new student first-hand. The issue of the headphone use in class was discussed, and different teachers talked about how they could accommodate this need to a certain extent, but when and how it might need to be modified due to their type of instruction and the structure of their classroom, e.g., art class being different from English or Math, etc. The student, given a chance to express her feelings, agreed to those modifications. The student was allowed to leave a classroom to go to one of two designated “safe places” if her anxiety became too much to handle. Parameters were placed around this accommodation to keep it from being abused. All administrators in the building were apprised of this new student and the challenges she presented, as well as what had been done to accommodate her needs in the classroom. Finally, communication between teachers, the counselor, the school psychologist, and the student’s new IEP case manager was ongoing in order to address any problems that might occur once classes began. Again, information and communication were key.

This girl had very high needs, given her background and current situation. And yet, with the preparation that included school administrators and classroom teachers, as well as the student herself, she did fairly well and did not demonstrate the disruptive issues that her previous school was experiencing. Her teachers, given the information they now knew, had some understanding of this student’s past experiences and current situation such that they could empathize with her and with her needs. While she still clearly struggled from time to time, she seemed to know that she was accepted, that her needs were understood, and that help was available should she reach out. There were no incidents of non-compliance or acting out behaviors that disrupted any of her classes. Unfortunately, she eventually ran away from her foster home several months later and was found and placed in yet another foster home in a different school district.

Schools Cannot Cure All of the Societal Ills and Resulting Psychological Issues That Affect the Lives of Their Students
What we can do is set up systems that provide school personnel with the information they require to understand the needs of at-risk students who enter their buildings and classrooms. By taking the time to gather information and communicate it to teachers and administrators, plans can be devised to help support students who are at risk for behavioral issues. Schools at all levels can provide adaptive resources and procedures that will hopefully avoid incidents like that at Spring Valley High School. It takes time to follow these types of procedures, but it can make a major difference in the lives of our students and the atmosphere of the entire school.

Irene E. Mullan earned her B.A. in School Psychology from Western Washington University; MS.Ed. in School Psychology and CAGS (Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study) both from the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Last year she returned to fill an interim part time position as the school psychologist for Sedro-Woolley High School.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.