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For Safe Schools, Give Students the Support They Need

Recent events provide a tragic reminder that we must continue to improve school safety. Doing so must involve efforts to prevent violent incidents and also strategies to address violence when it occurs.

It’s important to remember that following the Columbine shooting in 1999, the Secret Service investigated school violence and concluded that the most valuable tool to prevent violence is not a metal detector, cameras or even a school safety officer. Instead, they recommended creating strong personal relationships with every child in a school. Almost all violent individuals tell someone about their plans before becoming violent. When students, staff and others know where to turn for help, interventions can, and have, occurred to stop violence.

The Secret Service recognized that it is essential to create a school environment where students have relationships with trusted adults and believe that reporting information about a troubled friend will lead to help, rather than punishment. School environments where problems are addressed by punishment like suspensions, or even arrests, strongly undermine the type of environment that the Secret Service recommended. That’s why Student Advocacy, an Elmsford-based agency that supports children who face obstacles in school, uses a “Solutions Not Suspensions” strategy to address school safety. This approach seeks to improve school climate, reduce student suspensions and prevent school violence.

In a recent letter to New York state legislators, the NYS Safe and Supportive Schools Coalition noted that there is no evidence to suggest that a law enforcement presence in schools is the best way to improve school safety.

As the challenges in students’ lives have grown more complex, schools need more counselors and support staff, professionals who are trained to respond to the social, emotional and mental health needs of students.

The national Interdisciplinary Group on Preventing School and Community Violence issued a Call for Action in February for a “comprehensive public health approach to gun violence that is informed by scientific evidence and is free from partisan politics.” Three key recommendations support creating a ‘solutions-oriented’ environment in schools:

  • a national requirement for all schools to assess school climate and maintain physically and emotionally safe conditions that protect students and adults from bullying, discrimination, harassment and assault;
  • adequate staffing of school- and community-based mental health services for individuals with risk factors for violence, recognizing that violence is not intrinsically a product of mental illness. Such staffing includes counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers.
  • reform of school discipline to reduce suspensions and foster positive social, behavioral, emotional and academic success for students.

At the New York State level, there is legislation to promote alternatives to traditional, ineffective discipline methods. The Judge Judith S. Kaye Safe and Supportive Schools Act (A.3873a; S.3036a) proposes that school districts enact alternatives to student suspensions. The bill would encourage the use of positive and age-appropriate discipline strategies and eliminate the use of out-of-school suspensions for minor infractions; significantly limit suspensions for students in K-3; and limit unnecessary contact between law enforcement and students. The bill also calls for the revision of school districts’ Codes of Conduct.

There has been discussion recently about whether to roll back the 2014 School Discipline Guidance Package issued by the federal Departments of Education and Justice. The guidance was issued because students of color and students with disabilities receive more frequent and severe forms of discipline, specifically regarding suspensions. It called on school districts to revise their discipline policies to be more equitable and conducive to a safe, supportive, and inclusive school environment.

Despite research supporting this approach, these civil rights safeguards are under threat by the current administration.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office recently found that black students, particularly boys and students with disabilities, were disciplined more frequently and more severely for the same infractions committed by their white peers. Its report contends that suspensions actually increase problem behaviors, which, in turn, negatively affect school safety.

So let’s not rush to increase police presence in schools, or back away from the movement to improve school climate and limit the use of punitive, exclusionary school discipline. We can benefit from the work of the Sandy Hook Promise, which promotes research-based methods that seek to prevent school violence. Their Know the Signs programs have helped stop multiple school shootings, suicides and gun threats, reduced bullying, and helped hundreds of students receive mental health assistance.

We must take the time to enact meaningful, long-lasting policies that seek to address and resolve problem behavior before it escalates. To exclude students from school when they are having difficulties shows them that their school does not care. It alienates them further from an institution designed to support their development into happy, healthy, and productive members of society, and that can link them and their families to critical community services that schools cannot provide.


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