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Trump Safety Commission’s First ‘Field Hearing’ to Explore ‘Positive Behavior’ Strategy

By Alyson Klein — May 30, 2018 4 min read
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The Federal Commission on School Safety will have its first “field” hearing Thursday—and second meeting—at a school in Anne Arundel County, Md., that has embraced Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS. And advocates are already questioning whether U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who chairs the panel, will come away with something new to share with the K-12 field.

DeVos told reporters in Grand Rapids, Mich., this week that the commission—which President Donald Trump set up in the wake of the deadly massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February—will find “great ideas that this community might not know about. ... We need to make sure that schools and communities have all the tools available to them and ultimately the resources they need to address these issues appropriately.”

But advocates note that PBIS, which was written into the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, isn’t exactly an under-the-radar strategy in need of the federal spotlight.

PBIS is a multi-tiered system of services and strategies aimed at helping to combat behavior problems. All students are taught certain behavioral expectations and rewarded for following them, and students with more needs are provided increasingly intensive interventions.

The formal system was in place in more than 21,000 schools in August of 2015, according to the National Center for Positive Behaviorial Interventions and Supports. Sixteen states are using it in 500 schools or more.

“PBIS, been there, done that,” said Myrna Mandlawitz, the director of government relations at the School Social Work Association of America. She’s a fan of the approach, but she said most school districts are well aware of it. “PBIS is a great technique but certainly not something that we don’t already know about. Most educators have had some exposure to PBIS. They’re finally awakening to what the field has known for years,”

Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, the director of government relations for the National Association of School Psychologists, agreed.

“I cannot imagine there is a district that is not aware of PBIS,” she said in an email. “It certainly has some merit in helping to improve school climate and address student behavior, but in my opinion there are far more interesting and innovative approaches to school safety that she could highlight.”

On the other hand, a site visit focused on school climate may surprise some groups, who’ve criticized the Trump administration for focusing more on “hardening schools,” arming teachers, and beefing up physical security measures.

Trump signed a massive federal funding bill that included the STOP School Violence Act, a bill that funds school security and safety measures and threat assessment programs like violence tiplines.

But the funding for that program comes at the expense of another, created under the Obama administration to research violence prevention, school safety, and school climate in the wake of the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn. That is a major concern for education researchers, who say there is an urgent need for more data about how to keep schools safe.

The spending bill redirects all $75 million from the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative’s research program to the STOP School Violence Act, which does not emphasize research and evaluation and has a narrower list of acceptable funding uses.

Advocates have also questioned the school safety commission’s transparency and the pace of its work. Mandalowitz noted there was little advance notice of this field hearing.

DeVos will be joined at the session by top officials from the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services. Officially, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen are members. So far, the commission has met only once, on March 28. But there have been seven school shootings since its inception.

The field hearing will take place at Frank Hebron-Harman Elementary School in Hanover, Md., which is part of the Anne Arundel County school district. DeVos will visit a classroom and have a panel discussion. Also on hand: Dr. George Sugai, the co-director of the Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports at the University of Connecticut.

Thursday’s field hearing will be the first of several exploring possible school safety strategies in the wake of a spate of school shootings. The commission will also host different types of events including meetings and listening sessions.

Crime scene tape runs outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 18. Authorities opened the streets around the school, which had been closed since a mass shooting on Feb. 14.

--Gerald Herbert/AP

Staff Writer Evie Blad contributed to this post.

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