How to Provide the Full-Service Community-Supported Public Schools We Need

All students have potential, but access to support and opportunity is not equally distributed. As a high school principal for 10 years, I encountered well-intentioned teachers and students racing toward adulthood with an endless variety of needs: students struggling with poverty; transience; family changes; immigration; addiction; the negative effects of trauma; and emotional, physical, and social health.

In most cases, these challenges directly affect a student’s ability to thrive in the classroom, and schools struggle because there is no prescribed or easy solution. The response to the academic struggles of our students has traditionally included longer days and school years, improved instructional strategies, targeted remediation, and focused test preparation. But schools have rarely attempted to combat the non-academic root causes which are negatively affecting the achievement of our students.

Simply put, not enough is being done to address the lack of equity experienced by students and their families. So we must ask ourselves a few questions: How can I ensure my students have the access and opportunity to fully realize their potential? How do we help each student understand his or her personal aptitudes and assets? How do we instill within a student a sense of optimism and a sense of purpose?

A Comprehensive School Offering Wraparound Support

To really help students succeed, schools need to implement a holistic approach by supplementing our extensive instructional efforts and becoming “full service” schools. With embedded essential community services such as basic needs provision, mental and physical health services, hard and soft skill development, and workforce exploration, students have their best chance at a successful start following graduation.

A comprehensive wraparound school is a place of hope, connection, and opportunity — a school that’s actively striving to make equity and future success attainable for its students. This means monitoring student setbacks and successes, providing academic and behavioral interventions in a timely manner, connecting students and families with support services, and offering high-quality aptitude-based career and college transition counseling.

“Whole child” schooling, paired with collaborative community partnerships, is a cornerstone in the common-sense revisioning of public education and a powerful solution we need now. Here are some tips to improve a school’s ability to provide comprehensive, wraparound community services and partnerships to ensure all students have the support they need and an equitable opportunity for success:

1. Evaluate Students’ Needs

A comprehensive full-service school is designed to meet the needs of its students by working with local individuals, agencies, and businesses to strengthen the community. First, schools must identify needs and establish priorities. Schools uncover specific barriers and concerns students are facing by speaking in depth with students, parents, and community members. High-quality needs assessments provide data that schools and communities use to prioritize the most pressing needs and opportunities for support and partnership.

2. Give Students Hope, Purpose, and Relevance

For struggling students, some of the most powerful interventions regarding post-high school planning lie in the realm of social and emotional learning — the development of a student’s self-discovery and aspiration leading to optimism, self-worth, and purpose. Aptitude-based assessments are capable of helping educators and parents learn much more about our teens than what is typically gleaned through traditional academic testing.

While I was a principal at Marietta High School, we partnered as a pilot school with YouScience, an aptitude assessment tool. YouScience uncovers students’ natural talents and matches them to careers in which their abilities add value to the workforce. Too often, we point students in directions or make course recommendations for them based on what we have available for scheduling, what we can gather from their academic test results, and our own personal hunches about what they might be good at or interested in. Typically, educators have little information which is relevant to whether the direction recommended is the best fit for the individual student. YouScience equips schools to engage in individualized goal-setting with students and parents through a process that is informative and inspires hope.

3. Compile Resources

With students’ needs in mind, schools must search the community to identify local resources, partners, service providers, and funding sources. Consider looking beyond the local community for resources if need be, and then connect students and families with the available services. Some schools might want to start small, with partnerships providing care closets, apprenticeships, job placement assistance, mediation services, or wellness coaching, and then gradually grow the number of services offered over time. Other schools might have the resources to introduce multiple community partners to work with students and their families on a regular basis. The important thing is that students are connected with community resources providing the support they need.

4. Commit to the Long Term

It’s important to remember that developing a school which provides comprehensive support is a process that takes intentionality, time, and patience. School districts must commit to discovery, innovation, and collaboration, and they must focus on a long-term goal of community improvement. It’s deep work that’s dependent upon trust and building relationships with students and community members. Start small and commit to the long haul.

Schools are microcosms of their communities. The time and energy invested in this process will benefit not only students and their families but also the community as a whole. Creating a “one-stop shop” of support and coordination of essential community services is the best way to address the most significant barriers our students face today, as well as set them up for success for years to come.

What Schools Can Do To Reduce Risky Behaviors and Suicides Among Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth

A high school English teacher in New Mexico told me about one of his students who had difficulty focusing in class. When the teacher showed concern, the student confided in him that her parents had kicked her sister out of the house after they found out she was dating a girl. The teacher tried his best to console the student and referred her to the school counselors for help.

The next year, the same girl sought his support when her parents took similar punitive measures against her because she, too, came out as a lesbian. This time he spoke openly with her, explaining that she had to keep her spirits up; that no matter what happened, she had to be true to herself. In concluding the story for me, the teacher explained that he knows the school needs to be a safe place in a community that may not accept his student. But even though he strives to create a safe environment, he does not think all staff people or students at the school are equally accepting.

At another high school, I heard something quite different. When asked about the experience of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students, an administrator responded – simply and implausibly – “We don’t have any of those kids at this school.”

Such accounts from teachers, administrators, nurses, and counselors illustrate the importance of schools and school staff for students struggling with their sexual orientation in a world that does not always support or even acknowledge their existence. Paradoxically, schools are often the only places lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth may find marginally more accepting than the surrounding community – and of course schools may not be more accepting. The everyday traumas experienced by these youth, especially when they find themselves in schools that ignore their needs, can put lesbian, gay, and bisexual students at increased risk for depression, substance misuse, and suicide.

Research Links Suicide to Sexuality

According to the Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than two-fifths of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth have seriously contemplated suicide. These young people are three times more likely to think about taking their own lives than their straight peers and four times more likely to actually plan and attempt suicide.

In addition to risk of suicide, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are twice as likely to be bullied or threatened with a weapon on campus and three times more likely to miss school because they feel unsafe. Risk behaviors that could result in negative health outcomes are also prevalent at a higher rate among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. For example, such young people have higher rates of smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, misusing prescription medicines, and using dangerous drugs including cocaine and heroin.

These statistics underline serious threats to many American young people. What can be done? The Center for Disease Control has identified several evidence-based ways to reduce the risk of suicide and risk behaviors among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth – by creating safer and more supportive school environments. So far, however, these strategies have not been fully or consistently implemented, and they are only rarely combined to create an optimum response.

How Schools Can Help

Schools are a critical point of intervention because they are the places where students spend most of their waking hours. When it comes to reducing risky or suicidal behaviors, schools are second in importance only to families. School nurses and counselors also often provide the first line of response to student medical or behavioral health issues. In rural settings where resources can be scarce, the school or school-based health center may be the main place students can find support or help. Based on available evidence, the Center for Disease Control has defined several strategies that can be adopted and combined to ensure that all American young people are supported and protected, regardless of their sexual orientation. According to these recommendations, schools can take the following steps – and, to date, only eight percent of schools do all.

  • Create “safe spaces” like a designated classroom, office, or student organization where students can receive support from school staff or other students. Only about 60% of schools currently have such spaces available.
  • Prohibit bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation or gender expression. Most schools report having such policies in place, but a fraction of them do not.
  • Facilitate access to medical health and behavioral health providers with experience serving lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Fewer than half of US. high schools facilitate such access.
  • Promote professional lessons on how staff can create safe and supportive school environments. Less than 60% of high schools provide this type of support to their faculty.
  • Deliver health education that includes information relevant to lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Only one-fourth of U.S. schools do this.

These strategies are an important way to address the needs of not only lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth, but may also help transgender and gender non-conforming students as well. Unfortunately, research on these subgroups and programs to help them remains to be done. An important recent development is the inclusion a gender identity question in the 2017 Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey.

Recognizing the existence of sexual and gender minorities in America’s schools and gathering large-scale data about their experiences can provide a clearer picture of the challenges various groups of students face – and, in turn, allow improved responses to their needs. By creating safer and more supportive school environments, we can reduce dangerous behaviors, eliminate many suicides, and improve academic and health outcomes, not only for sexual and gender minority youth, but also for all other students in our schools. Problems and tragedies that affect some students reverberate among many – and undermine America’s future.

Emergency Drills in School: Info for Parents

It may seem fairly obvious, but, like most procedures, a school’s method for evacuation in the case of a fire is a thoroughly planned and practiced drill. Most schools must complete multiple fire drills throughout the yearsome announced and some unannounced to ensure that procedures are followed even when school staff is not expecting the drill.

What happens during a fire drill?

Obviously, procedures vary from school to school. However, most of the following protocols apply when completing a fire drill:

  • When the alarm sounds, students quickly line up to exit the classroom in an orderly fashion. While we want to get students out swiftly, we do not want to risk injury in the meantime from pushing, shoving, tripping, etc.  
  • Each teacher will have a planned route to lead students out of the building. Typically, the closest stairwell and exit to that particular classroom will be utilized to evacuate students. The only exception might be when multiple classes are converging. In this case, the school will have assigned an alternate evacuation stairwell and exit so that hallway traffic keeps moving promptly.
  • Depending on when the drill is taking place, your child’s evacuation plan will be different from teacher to teacher and class to class. It is important that your child knows of the designated evacuation stairwell and exit method in each of his classes. In the instance when your child is unsure of where to go, teachers and other school staff have been instructed to scoop up “stragglers” on the way out of the building.
  • Once evacuated, teachers and staff will move students to their designated locations, at least 50 feet from the building, and take roll to ensure that all students present are safe and accounted for. Teachers will also alert administration of any students that they may have been scooped up on the way out.
  • Students will have likely been instructed to remain silent during the entire duration of the drill. This ensures that any important messages or directions from adults are heard and that order is maintained throughout the procedure. It also helps teachers move students quickly out of the building since children are not socializing or missing important instructions.
  • It is probable that school officials or fire marshals are present throughout the year to ensure that the school’s fire drill procedures are seamless and appropriately conducted according to laws and regulations.

What exactly is a reverse evacuation?

A reverse evacuation drill, aptly enough, is exactly as it sounds. When conditions outside the building are more dangerous than inside, students will be moved indoors to a predetermined safety zone. This type of situation might occur if physical education classes were outside for class when a sudden thunderstorm moved in, or if there was a minor threat in the neighborhood like a loose animal or fire nearby in the community. All of the same expectations would apply for a reverse evacuationstudents should remain quiet and follow their teachers’ instructions to move quickly indoors to safety.

What happens during a shelter in place?

A shelter in place is a procedure, previously known as “code blue,” which requires increased safety precautions in and around the school building. The most frequent use of shelter in place is if there is a medical emergency or a non-threatening police matter that requires a student to be removed from the school. If, for instance, a student had a seizure in class, the school might go into a shelter in place so that hallways are clear for paramedics and other emergency personnel and the student has privacy during their health situation.

Protocol for a shelter in place requires teachers to sweep the halls to bring stray students into the nearest classroom, limit hall passes, send attendance to the main office, and close the classroom door. Instruction continues, as there is no immediate threat. The main purpose of this practice is to restrict traffic in and around the school.

What happens during a lockdown?

A lockdown, previously known as a “code red,” means that there is imminent danger in or around the school itself. Most recently, because of the startling rise in gun-related school violence, many people refer to a lockdown as an active shooter drill.

When a lockdown is issued, teachers quickly sweep the hall outside of the classroom door and immediately bring any stray students into the room. These might be students returning from the bathroom or lockers; either way, the goal is to recover any student from the hallways.

The teachers will instruct students to move SILENTLY to an area in the classroom that is out of view of the doorway and windows. Teachers will lock the door, pull the shades, turn off the computer and promethean screen, and maintain silence as long as necessary. The point of locking down is to make each classroom appear as though it is empty. In the event of a genuine lockdown, not a drill, administrators or law enforcement will instruct students and staff when it is safe to lift the lockdown. Until teachers receive the “ok,” students and staff remain silent and hidden.  

What happens during a drop, cover, and hold drill?

In the rare event of a sudden earthquake, teachers will instruct students to drop, cover, and hold. This means that students will quickly take cover under their desks. They will drop to the floor, pull their knees up to their chests if possible, and cover their heads with their hands in a crouched ball under the desk. If near a window, students will be instructed to crouch in the position with their backs to the window. This drill is typically practiced once per year to ensure that students know the procedure if there was ever a risk of an earthquake in the area.

What happens during a severe weather drill?

This protocol is followed when there is a threat of severe wind and weather, including a hurricane, tornado, etc., in the immediate area. Following the same evacuation guidelines as a fire drill, students will leave their classrooms in a swift, yet orderly, fashion and relocate to their designated shelter zone. Most schools have several severe weather shelter areas, typically on the ground level, in an interior hallway, away from windows. These zones are usually solid, reinforced areas of the school where students and staff are best protected from severe weather.

Once students reach the designated zone, they will be asked to sit or crouch on the floor with their backs against the wall. Again, students will be asked to remain quiet so that instructions can be relayed easily if necessary. Administrators will continue to watch and listen for weather updates or changes in the storm until the threat has passed.

Mental Health Programs in Schools – Growing Body of Evidence Supports Effectiveness

mental health schools

School-based mental health programs can reach large numbers of children, with increasing evidence of effectiveness in improving mental health and related outcomes, according to a research review in the September/October issue of the Harvard Review of Psychiatry. The journal is published by Wolters Kluwer.

“This review provides evidence that large-scale, school-based programs can be implemented in a variety of diverse cultures and educational models as well as preliminary evidence that such programs have significant, measurable positive effects on students’ emotional, behavioral, and academic outcomes,” write J. Michael Murphy, EdD, of Massachusetts General Hospital and colleagues.

School-Based Programs Focus on Preventing Mental Health Problems

An estimated 13 percent of children and adolescents worldwide have significant mental health problems such as anxiety, disruptive behavior disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and depression. Especially if left untreated, these disorders often persist into adulthood, with lasting effects on many aspects of life.

Over the years, many programs have been designed to deliver preventive mental health services in schools, where children and teens spend so much of their time. Substantial research now shows that school-based mental health interventions can be widely implemented and can lead to population-wide improvements in mental health, physical health, educational, and social outcomes.

Dr. Murphy and colleagues identified and analyzed school-based mental health programs that have been implemented on a large scale and have collected data on specific mental health outcomes. The authors estimate that the eight largest programs have reached at least 27 million children over the last decade.

The interventions vary in their focus, methods, and goals. The largest program, called “Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports” (PBIS), focuses on positive social culture and behavioral support for all students. The second-largest program, called “FRIENDS,” aims to reduce anxiety and to teach skills for managing emotions and coping with stress—not only to children, but also to parents and teachers.

Most of the school-based mental health interventions were designed to focus on mental health promotion or primary prevention for all students in the school; some programs also target students at high risk of mental health problems. Most of the programs have been implemented across school districts, while some have been introduced on the state or national level.

Available research provides “moderate to strong” evidence that these interventions are effective in promoting good mental health and related outcomes. For example, studies of FRIENDS have reported reductions in anxiety, while PBIS has shown improved reading scores and fewer school suspensions. Other programs have shown benefits such as reducing bullying at school; one intervention has even been linked to lower rates of substance abuse in young adulthood.

The authors point out that school-based mental health interventions have been studied almost exclusively in high-income countries—despite the fact that about 80 percent of the global population of children live in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). But there’s evidence that this may be changing, since three of the eight largest programs have been implemented “to scale” in LMICs. One of these, called “Skills for Life,” has been running on a national basis in Chile for more than a decade.

“Data sets of increasing quality and size are opening up new opportunities to assess the degree to which preventive interventions for child mental health, delivered at scale, can play a role in improving health and other life outcomes,” Dr. Murphy and colleagues conclude. With ongoing data collection and new evaluation frameworks, they believe that school-based mental health programs have the potential to “improve population-wide health outcomes of the next generation.”

Bullying of Students with Disabilities in Our Schools

by Vilissa K. Thompson, LMSW

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Though the 2013-2014 school year is ending for the summer, the bullying of students with disabilities epidemic has made headline news this academic term.  A recent headlining story took place late May in Richmond, California, where a father boarded a school bus, and attacked the student who allegedly bullied his 9-year-old son, who has autism. Burris Hurd was charged with child abuse and corporal injury to a child, and was held in jail on a $50,000 bond.

Reports stated that Hurd’s son identified an 11-year-old student to his father that he claimed had bullied him. Hurd, supposedly inebriated, reacted by grabbing the alleged bully by the hair, pulled and raised the student by his hair out of his seat, and shoved the child on the side of the bus.  Hurd also made threats to the suspected bully, and other students on the bus.  The bus driver failed to restrain Hurd from assaulting the student nor did he report the attack to school officials.

It was the attacked student who reported the incident to the principal, who then contacted the police department. Both students attend the special education program at Wilson Elementary School in Richmond. It is without saying that Hurd’s actions towards his son being bullied by a student was highly inappropriate, life-threatening, and extremely counterproductive to finding a solution to the program.No adult should ever put his or her hands on a child, whether disabled or not, in any fashion that will yield bodily harm and/or intimidation. Though parents and guardians of children with disabilities tend to be overprotective and on high-alert as to how their child(ren) are treated by others, assaulting someone is never the answer to resolving the issue that may exist.

The Astounding Reality of the Bullying of Students with Disabilities:

According to PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center, research found that students with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their non-disabled classmates.  One research study discovered that 60% of students with disabilities have reported experiencing some form of bullying, which is an incredibly higher percentage than non-disabled students who reported being bullied (which was 25%).

How Bullying Affects A Student’s Ability to Learn & Thrive in the Classroom:

The effects of bullying can negatively impact the educational experiences of students with disabilities.  Contrary to what we adults would like to believe, bullying is NOT a harmless rite of passage that children endure; its only purpose is to embarrass, ostracize, and belittle the student targeted.

Bullying has the ability to adversely influence the targeted student’s access to education, to the point where the student’s academic success can be jeopardized.  Here are some of the devastating effects of bullying on a student’s educational experience:

  • School avoidance and higher rates of absenteeism
  • Decrease in grades
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Loss of interest in academic achievement
  • Increase in dropout rates

Bullying Based on a Student’s Disability Status is Considered Harassment:

Bullying and harassing behavior can be deemed as:

  • Unwelcomed conduct, such as verbal abuse, name-calling, epithets, and/or slurs
  • Graphic or offensive language, or written statements
  • Threats (verbal or implied through non-verbal communication (i.e., pounding fist into palm))
  • Physical assaults
  • Other behavioral conducts that may be physically threatening, harmful, or humiliating

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have both stated that bullying may be considered as harassment when it is based on a student’s identity status(es), such as race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion.

The issue of bullying and/or harassment due to a student’s disability status are outlined under two federal policies:  Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.  (The OCR is responsible for reinforcing Section 504, and Title II of the ADA.)  Students with disabilities who have a 504 plan or Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which are used in addressing, outlining, and implementing any accommodations and resources they may need in the school environment, qualify for the legal protections under these mandates.

The Responsibilities of School Officials in Addressing Bullying:

Bullying 3In the Dear Colleague letter issued by the OCR in 2000:

States and school districts also have a responsibility under Section 504, Title II, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is enforced by OSERS [the Office for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services], to ensure that a free appropriate public education (FAPE) is made available to eligible students with disabilities. Disability harassment may result in a denial of FAPE under these statutes.

In the letter, the OCR also addressed how bullying and harassment has the potential to stymie a student with an IEP from receiving an educational opportunity that is appropriate for their needs:

The IDEA was enacted to ensure that recipients of IDEA funds make available to students with disabilities the appropriate special education and related services that enable them to access and benefit from public education.  The specific services to be provided a student with a disability are set forth in the student’s individualized education program (IEP), which is developed by a team that includes the student’s parents, teachers and, where appropriate, the student.  Harassment of a student based on disability may decrease the student’s ability to benefit from his or her education and amount to a denial of FAPE.

The OCR released another Dear Colleague letter in 2010 as a reminder to school officials of their responsibilities to protecting the civil rights of students with disabilities from bullying and harassment.

Under these federal policies, parents and students have legal rights when bullying and harassment occurs.  It is the school administrators and school districts responsibilities to ensure that a non-threatening environment is available to all students, and are to take proactive measures to eliminate situations that may affect a student’s physical and emotional safety, and academic achievement.

What Can Be Done To Combat Bullying:

Responding Appropriately to Bullying Allegations Made by Students with Disabilities

From the headline story covered at the beginning of this article, the parental response was undeniably ineffective in grasping an understanding of what was taking place between the alleged bullying victim and accuser.

Parents/guardians, educators, school district officials, and other adults involved in students’ academic experience, have to realize that they are the frontline advocates for bullied students with disabilities. Advocating for the safety of students and ensuring that students are able to function fully in the school environment should be the top priority for everyone; losing that focus will be ineffectual handling of the situation.  Students with disabilities who are bullied need to feel that those who are supposed to protect them will do so.  Receiving that protection and support from these adults will allow students to be comfortable in discussing what has transpired between them and their classmate(s) in order to resolve the problem.

One key thing for adults to realize:  it is NEVER the bullied students’ responsibility to “fix” the problem; if they could do that, then they would not need adult intervention.

Educate Yourself About What Your State is Doing to Fight Bullying in Our Schools

Bullying and harassment are not only mentioned in federal laws – many states have enacted laws addressing the detrimental effects and responsibilities of schools.  StopBullying.gov, a federal resource that provides information about bullying and cyberbullying, targeted populations, and what can be done to ameliorate and extinguish this issue, has a webpage called Policies & Laws that gives you the opportunity to learn about the anti-bullying mandates in your state.

Create a School & Community Environment Where Peer & Self Advocacy are Supported

Allowing students to be stand up for themselves and their classmates when bullying and harassment occurs is a powerful peer supporting mechanism to establish in school and community settings.

Students know who are the “instigators”/”bullies” in their schools, but they may not want to be the one to “snitch” on their friend or classmate.  Teaching students that they have a responsibility to stand up for what is right by speaking up when it is necessary has the potential to reduce the occurrence of bullying and harassment by more than 50%.  The reason peer advocacy is so effective is because a student who confronts a peer about their bullying behavior resonates more than it would coming from an adult

Teaching self-advocacy to students with disabilities will allow them to find their voice.  Learning to be direct about what they need, and when they feel unsafe will eliminate feelings of intimidation or shame due to bullying.  Self-advocacy is an empowering tool that students will be able to use not only in the school environment, but also in the workforce, addressing public policies, etc., when they become adults.  It is truly never too early to promote self-advocacy to disabled students; it is an imperative life skill to have.

Resources About Bullying in Our Schools

Awareness and action regarding bullying are dire so that all students will can learn in our schools without fear or isolation.  StopBullying.gov’s Prevent Bullying page and PACER’s Resources webpage has a plethora of online tools for parents, educators, and students to fight against bullying.

Final Thoughts about Bullying:

We cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand anymore; our students are hurting, and in some cases, are taking their own lives, because of bullying.  It is our responsibility as parents/guardians, educators, helping professionals, and community residents to work together to protect and empower our students of all abilities.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of JLSL.)

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