Still Safe and Supportive: School protections vital as ever (October/November, 2016)

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August 13, 2014 forever changed the educational landscape. What some consider the biggest “education reform” that benefits all children was signed into law.  The law was intended to support schools by creating and maintaining “safe and supportive schools” (SSS) which allows students to better focus thus improving their learning.

 Safe and Supportive Schools is part of a larger gun violence-reduction act that had been inspired by the tragedy in Newtowne, CT, that provides a framework to integrate such important elements of school safety as bullying, truancy, and dropout prevention, as well as social-emotional education into a strong foundation for learning. It also established a statewide Safe and Supportive Schools Commission to advise the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) on proper implementation. 

Teachers, paraprofessionals, related service providers, school nurses, administrators, students, parents, and the community at-large are more aware now than ever that safe and supportive school cultures are needed.  You hear “trauma,” “social-emotional learning,” “bullying prevention,” “restorative justice,” and much more in the media, in our schools, and from stakeholders. Supporting students with the appropriate and most effective tools so each can be resilient and focus on learning is front and center.

With the passage of the 2014 law, there are renewed efforts to support students so each feels safe and supported and with the greater goal that each school throughout the Commonwealth has a safe and supportive culture with integrated supports so that teachers and students can focus on teaching and learning.  

A Safe and Supportive Schools Framework exists and guides the development of helping schools become safe and supportive schools with an on-line self-assessment tool which helps schools engage in this process. The Safe and Supportive Schools framework and self-assessment tool are organized by six elements of school operations and are currently being used by teachers and in schools. They are also continually being reviewed and updated so that they are consistent with best practices, user friendly for teachers and schools, and focused on students.   

In December 2015, the Commission issued a report to the Legislature which has guided the Commission’s work this year.  The Commission is co-chaired by Susan Cole, Senior Project Director  of Massachusetts Advocates for Children and Director of the Trauma Learning Policy Initiative and Rachelle Engler Bennett of DESE.  The Commission has three strategic objectives of focus: Framework/Tool Refinement & Information Gathering, Initiative Refinement/Integration, and Funding/Resources/Communications.  All objectives are detailed with specific deliverables that can be reviewed at www.doe.mass.edu/ssce/safety.html?section=commission. 

Angela Cristiani, BTU Political Director and a School Psychologist, serves as the AFTMA representative on the Commission and leads the group that focuses on Funding/Resources/Communications. This year, with bipartisan support, the budget signed by Governor Baker included $400,000 in funding for Safe and Supportive Schools and further specifies for DESE to hire a full-time individual who is charged with carrying out the provisions as set forth by law.  The grant program, statewide and regional conferences, along with needed technological assistance for the on-line assessment tool, will continue.

“I’m thrilled to see the legislature embrace this work in a concrete way,” Cristiani said. “Every student within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts benefits. I’m excited about the work and early discussions with colleagues as to how we can continue to support our students and to assist teachers.  I’m confident that we will continue to move forward so that every school within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts embraces a safe and supportive schools culture with appropriate funding and supports.” This year’s report of the Commission (2016), to include recommendations, will be submitted to the Legislature in December. 

Cristiani was also excited to report that her colleagues were amongst those in attendance at the September 19th White House Conference, “Trauma-Informed Approaches in School: Supporting Girls of Color and Rethinking Discipline.”

“MA was well represented and we are leading the way,” Cristiani observed. “It’s our students who truly benefit.”