The Total Child

Blog Tour: Three Supportive Ways School Districts Can Create Healthy Schools and Reduce Threats of Weapon Violence

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Guest post by Ron Avi Astor and Rami Benbenishty  

  

 RonAviAstor  RamiHeadshot
Ron Avi Astor Rami Benbenishty

 
Ron Avi Astor, is the Stein-Wood Professor of School Behavioral Health at the University of Southern California in the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and the Rossier School of Education. Rami Benbenishty is a professor in the School of Social Work, Bar Ilan University. They work together on international efforts designed to support school climate improvement and prevent bullying and school violence. They are co-authors of "Welcoming practices: Creating schools that support students and families in transition" and "Mapping and monitoring bullying and violence: Building a safe school climate." The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.

We are in the midst of a national battle over what our schools should be. How do we create citizens who are A+ human beings in addition to being A+ students? How do we create thriving, optimal academic school environments where the interactions between students, teachers, parents, and the community create a better union both within our schools and for the future of our fractured society? Indeed, we are debating not only what we want our schools to be but also what we want our society to be.

One vision for our nation’s schools upholds the belief that the path toward lasting safety comes from welcoming, caring, and supportive environments. This path focuses on improving school climate, engaging in social emotional learning (SEL), and fostering a compassionate community — in addition to offering a high-quality academic program. This vision advocates for humane social supports, institutional linkages, and community resources for those students struggling with mental health, societal obstacles, and family or community strife.

Another vision is a response to mass shootings. This strategy uses tools and ideas that originate in law enforcement, prison architecture, and military and anti-terror strategies. This approach tries to “harden” schools and aims to protect students from murder by creating prison-like, high-security environments patrolled by armed staff members. 

This is not only a philosophical and ideological debate, it also raises a set of empirical and scientific questions. We believe the answers are quite clear. Decades of well-conducted, large-scale studies from across the world strongly support one vision and not the other. Schools with a positive climate, where SEL is integrated into their DNA, have significantly less bullying and victimization, and have lower weapon use, threats by a weapon, and students reporting they have seen or know of a weapon on school grounds. There is no evidence for the success of “hardening” schools with armed staff members, zero-tolerance measures, and harsher law enforcement measures. In fact, the lion’s share of findings and studies point to negative outcomes of these approaches, including higher drop-out rates, a school-to-prison pipeline, higher expulsion and suspension rates, and climates of fear or restricted freedom.

Our research and experience in numerous schools around the world suggest three main principles that could guide district superintendents to create better climate, more welcoming schools, and lower violence on school grounds.

  1. District- Level Vision: Go for central air vs. window air-conditioning.

Be clear with all district administrators and school site principals how climate, SEL, academics and school safety are integrated into the mission of the district and of each school. There is a need for an overall and comprehensive approach that encompasses every aspect of the lives of schools — a “central air conditioning,” rather than an endless and short-lived series of disjointed programs (“window air-conditioning”). Research shows that when this comprehensive and integrated approach is adopted, climate, safety and welcoming environments are more sustainable, and can more easily spread to multiple schools within a district. When programs addressing SEL, climate, safety and the school’s academic mission separately, these missions compete against each other and are not easily sustained over time.

 From this perspective, the best investment districts can make is to build a core team of pupil personnel, social workers, psychologists, and counselors who work with every school and build sustainable capacity at the district and school level. The long-term yield and the flexibility of this group of professionals would be greater than an evidence-based-program that is not directly linked to the specific social or mental health needs of the schools in that community. Well-trained pupil personnel can sustain and extend evidence-based and youth empowerment interventions district-wide. They can reach beyond program limitations and adapt interventions specifically to the school and community’s cultural needs.

A stable group of district- and school-level pupil personnel staff members is an important defense against the inevitable turnover among school and district personnel. They can help train new educators and other staff members, and maintain the organizational memory.

 2.    Good school safety is an extension of the principal’s vision and organization of the school.

 Research from around the world has shown that the principal's vision and organization of each school is the strongest safety tool a district can employ. In schools where strong leaders have an integrated vision of climate, SEL, academics, and safety, many types of interventions can be effective. In schools with weak organizations and leadership, most safety approaches fail. Superintendents need to find ways to support principals and provide them with resources that can help them carry out the district’s safety mission. These include in-service training for all district and school employees, technological support, and flexibility in using safety resources.  

Strong and knowledgeable school leaders are aware of the unique safety concerns and characteristics of their schools. They resist a “one-size-fits-all” approach in order to create a unique blend of school safety policies and practices that reflect both the shared district vision and the uniqueness of their site. 

3.      Listen to the voices of teachers, students and parents, and empower all stakeholders to take responsibility in creating welcoming schools.

 In Israel and California schools, we’ve employed mapping and monitoring processes that gather the experiences and ideas of principals, teachers, students, and parents. This data helps district and school leaders identify which schools and student groups are experiencing bullying, discrimination, and victimization. Furthermore, it helps identify schools in which students see weapons, are threatened by a weapon, or bring a weapon to school. This mapping process takes a public health approach that focuses on primary prevention across all schools, with a special emphasis on providing resources and support to schools with more challenges. It’s done in a kind and supportive educational way rather than through law enforcement. Evidence-based programs such as threat assessment can be used in schools where threats are high.

We have implemented these principles in several places around the world. In California, monitoring the multiple views of students, staff members, and parents (using the California Healthy Kids Survey) helped leaders understand their schools' challenges and needs, and work toward responses that were relevant for their own particular sites. These schools used students’ voices and self-reports to improve their school’s climate, reduce violence, and create welcoming schools. By building pupil personnel teams that work with administrators, parents, students, and teachers and by allocating resources based on the unique needs of each school and district, there were significant positive changes.

In a recent seven-year study on the use of these methods in 145 schools in California (serving over 100,000 students), we found (for secondary schools):

  • A 55% reduction in gun carrying on school grounds
  •  A 37.5% reduction in knives, guns, clubs or other weapons being used to injure someone or to threaten injury.
  •  A 40% reduction in seeing a weapon on school grounds
  •  A 44% reduction in gang affiliation and participation

Every district is different; every superintendent is unique, but we do think that the principles we outline are flexible enough to allow every superintendent and every district to find their own unique path. Programs without trained staff members do not work. Creating a welcoming and caring setting with a strong knowledgeable staff is the best way to both prevent violence and create thriving school settings that do not feel like prison.

 


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