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At Trump School Safety Panel’s First ‘Field Hearing,’ Plenty of Focus on School Climate, Not Guns

By Alyson Klein — May 31, 2018 5 min read
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Representatives of President Donald Trump’s school safety commission, which is charged with making recommendations to combat school violence in the wake of February’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and other tragedies, spent the morning at Hebron Harman Elementary School here learning about positive behavioral supports and interventions, a widely-used system to help improve school climate and student behavior.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who chairs the commission, and others heard plenty of discussion of restorative behavior practices in which students resolve conflicts through conversation, common expectations for behavior, and community building circles.

But there was little said about some of the more controversial topics the committee is likely to tackle, including whether states and districts should consider arming teachers, as the president and DeVos have suggested, or whether lawmakers should consider gun control measures. There was also no talk of whether the commission should recommend repeal of the Obama-era guidance aimed at combatting discipline disparities, which is something the president asked the commission to consider.

DeVos, who was joined by representatives of other cabinet officers on the commission, has said part of the commission’s mission will be to shine a spotlight on possible solutions for school violence that other school districts can learn from.

That includes PBIS, a long-established, multitiered system of services and strategies aimed at helping to combat behavior problems. Under the framework, students are taught certain behavioral expectations and rewarded for following them. Students with more needs are provided increasingly intensive interventions.

“In the aftermath [of Parkland] students and educators alike feared that this could happen in their own school,” DeVos said. “Today we’re looking at concrete examples of a school taking a holistic approach to foster a safe and supportive culture, thanks in part to the implementation of positive behavioral interventions and supports.”

Hebron Harman is one of more than 26,000 schools across the country that uses the framework, according to George Sugai, the director of the Center for Positive Behavioral Supports at the University of Connecticut, who participated in the discussion. Sixteen states were using it in 500 schools or more, as of August of 2015. Nearly every state has PBIS going on to some extent, Sugai said.

Two districts that recently experienced mass shootings also appear to use PBIS to some extent, according to their websites: the Broward County school district, which is home to Stoneman Douglas, and the Santa Fe Independent School District, near Houston, Texas, the site of another shooting earlier this month.

DeVos has said the commission will focus on promising practices that might not be well-known across the country. But the National Association of Secondary School Principals argued that PBIS isn’t exactly flying under the radar.

“PBIS is a well-known program,” wrote JoAnn Bartoletti, NASSP’s executive director in a statement. “We’re concerned the secretary is just getting up to speed while the rest of the education community feels the urgency to act to implement practices we already know work. It’s a hazard of a chief education officer who is not in touch with the what’s happening in schools.” Other organizations had a similar take.

And Sugai and others who spoke to the commission told DeVos that school climate measures are only one part of the solution for preventing mass shootings in schools.

“One thing that we are learning is that schools that have a positive climate are able to respond more quickly to tragic events,” he said. “Schools that don’t have things in place have a harder time responding ... I think the school has a really important role to play, but the community is also part of this picture.”

DeVos and the other school safety commission representatives got to see the PBIS framework in action in Angela Synder’s 1st grade classroom at this elementary school, located between Washington and Baltimore. Students kicked off their day with a “morning meeting” where they greeted each other with an “Hola!” and a fist-bump. They also got the chance to share a time when another student had been kind to them, and a time when they themselves had been kind.

Sugai complimented Hebron’s “common language, common vision ... This didn’t happen because they had posters on the wall. It’s clear those kids had respect for their teachers and their teachers had respect for them.”

Elsewhere in the district, students at the middle and high school levels are required to formally reflect on their behavior and think about how it is affecting others and themselves, said Stacey Smith, the principal of Anne Arundel County’s Old Mill High School.

School resource officers form relationships with students, including serving as coaches of high school athletic teams. And, like other staff, those officers will counsel students about their behavior, she said.

“We have structures in place to make the students feel welcomed, and there are no surprises,” Smith said.

The commission, which is expected to release its recommendations by the end of the year, is made up of three cabinet secretaries other than DeVos: Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. None of the three attended the session at Hebron.

Each sent a representative: Elinore McCance-Katz, assistant secretary for mental health and substance abuse at the Department of Health and Human Services; Christopher Krebs, senior official performing the duties of the undersecretary for the national protection and programs directorate at the Justice Department; and Beth Williams, assistant attorney general for the office of legal policy.

DeVos asked the district and school officials how they are able to ensure that PBIS is implemented faithfully and how Anne Arundel County keeps its approach fresh. Virginia Dolan, the coordinator for behavioral supports and interventions for district, told DeVos there are regular summer institutes and other training on the strategy. And she said the district works with others in the state to hone its implementation.

At the conclusion of the event, DeVos didn’t give much indication of the panel’s next move. “We look forward to hearing from more states, school districts, and schools about their proven practices that make schools safe places to learn,” she said.

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