Saturday, September 8, 2018

Preventing School Shootings and Violence

States Not Waiting for the Federal Commission on School Safety Report:  The Guidance You Need is Here and Available

[CLICK HERE for the Full Version of this Blog]

Dear Colleagues,

   As we begin the 2018-2019 school year, school safety is on the minds of every parent, educator, and community. . . many students. . . and many state legislatures.  And while more have already been reported in August. . . since the beginning of 2018 and as of June 25th, there have been 41 deaths and 74 injuries in school shootings.  And this does not include the countless number of hidden “injuries” for those present and emotionally harmed by these events.

   And while the “lightning rod” for much of the recent discussion and action still is the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL., based on my work in schools during the past month (e.g., from Alaska to Philadelphia), there is a pervasive and continuing sense of anxiety and concern relative to “Who’s next?”
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   Critically, though. . . a related, but less discussed topic involves the school violence that falls short of a school shooting.  Indeed, Education Dive’s Jessica Campisi recently reported (August 23, 2018) that there were 3,654 violent incidents and threats in schools last year—a 62% increase from the 2016-2017 school year.

   Fully half of these incidents occurred in ten states: California, Florida, New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Illinois, North Carolina, and Virginia.

   So clearly, contradicting some media reports and numerous national professional association pronouncements—including recent testimony provided to the Federal Commission on School Safety—schools were increasingly more dangerous last year than the year before.

   Focusing on last year’s “top ten” most violent school states, the Education Dive article went on to describe an Educator’s School Safety Network analysis that noted:
  • The ten states of concern are geographically spread throughout the country.
  • They have different gun control policies and school security measures.
  • Except for Virginia, these states are among our 10 most populous states.
  • Many of these states have a great number of school districts, resulting in more difficulty coordinating services and staff, and less funding for teacher training.

   But the biggest “take-away” from this analysis is that demographics do not predict violence.  That is, there are few functional “common denominators” across these ten states to help us draw large-scale conclusions that will prevent or address future school violence on a broad scale.

   This “un-pattern” is similar to that emphasized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s United State Secret Service . . . as it recently reconfirmed that there is no single profile of a student attacker as it relates to school violence.
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The Federal Commission on School Safety:  Most States are (Wisely) Not Waiting

   Immediately after the Parkland shooting (in March, 2018), President Trump appointed U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to lead the Federal Commission on School Safety. Consisting only of the Secretaries of Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and the Attorney General, the Commission was charged with:

. . . (Q)uickly providing meaningful and actionable recommendations to keep students safe at school. These recommendations will include a range of issues, like social emotional support, recommendation on effective school safety infrastructure, discussion on minimum age for firearms purchases, and the impact that videogames and the media have on violence. There is not one plan that fits all schools across the country, so the Commission will be focusing on all variations of school size, structure, and geographic locations with their final recommendations.

   (In a political move—inappropriately taking advantage of the Parkland tragedy, the Commission was also charged with making a recommendation on retaining, eliminating, or adapting the Obama-era guidance putting schools on notice that they were at-risk of violating federal civil rights laws if their discipline-related policies, procedures, or practices led to disproportionately higher rates of discipline for students in one racial group.)

   While its report is forthcoming, a review of the Commission’s hearings and activities. . . and advanced releases of its likely content. . . suggest that its “meaningful and actionable recommendations” will be thin if not non-existent. 

   This prediction is strengthened, with all due respect to the different sites and participants, by the site visits and experts chosen by the federal government to participate in the Commission’s thirteen formal events— largely held during this past summer. 

[CLICK HERE for a Summary of these Events.]

   Indeed, numerous independent reports have expressed concerns with (a) the topics and content chosen, (b) the researchers and presenters invited, (c) the specific sites visited, and (d) the restrictions placed on those presenting at the “open” Public Listening Sessions.

   The biggest concerns centered around beliefs that the federal governmental agencies leading the Commission were controlling the agenda (i.e., what was highlighted, discussed, and not discussed), and that they were singularly “giving voice” to people and programs that they were funding (or had funded for many years). 

   As such, it appeared that the Commission’s agenda and meetings were driven more by politics and the need to manage (or limit) the discussion, than by open-ended inquiry and the pursuit of the best ideas to make our schools, staff, and students safer.

   More specifically:

  • The discussion regarding guns was virtually ignored—except as related to arming educators.
  • Many of the invited presenters were researchers (rather than practitioners), and/or were researchers affiliated with grants or Technical Assistance Centers funded by one of the federal agencies seated on the Commission.
  • A common (largely unresponded to) plea to the Commission was to take a broader, proactive, multi-faceted climate and relationship-centered approach to school safety—going beyond the emphasis on “hardening schools” through technology, physical security measures, active shooter drills, and a “bunker” mentality.
  • The “mental health” discussion occurred most directly during the Wisconsin visit.  But the focus was largely on trauma-informed care, a presentation of the state’s system of mental health supports, and the importance of interagency collaboration and parental advocacy.  There was virtually no discussion of school shooters, or the relationship of this mental health approach to successfully addressing school violence.
   Tragically, the Department of Education’s (and Betsy DeVos’) “consideration” as to whether federal funds can be used by schools to purchase weapons, appeared to get more attention than all of the previous discussion on the diverse ways needed to make schools safer.
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What the States Have Done Since Parkland

   Added to the Commission issues above is the fact that Congress has done virtually nothing to directly address school shootings in our country— other than to slightly increase the funding available for school safety.

   Thus, the “good news” (given the federal government’s leadership gap) is that state legislatures, some state departments of education, and many districts and schools have not waited for the Commission or Congress to act.

   Indeed, state legislatures have considered at least 261 school safety bills since the Parkland shooting, with most of the proposals focusing on law enforcement and school police, adjusting laws related to carrying guns in schools, and providing additional school safety funding.  From this, at least 29 bills and six resolutions have passed—including measures increasing the penalties for school threats and creating ways for students to anonymously report safety concerns.

   Relative to funding, at least 26 states have appropriated at least $960 million for school safety programs this year—with additional states ready to weigh in when their biennially-scheduled legislatures meet this coming year.

   Critically, though, most of this school safety funding has targeted upgrades to help school facilities to be more physically protected and technologically sophisticated.  Precious little money has been allocated to address students’ health, mental health, interpersonal, and/or wellness status and/or concerns.

   In this latter area since Parkland, a number of states passed bills establishing school safety task forces.  Whether by legislation or executive order, the following states (at least) have formed school safety task forces: Nevada, Utah, Ohio, Michigan, Texas, Mississippi, Wyoming, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

   Some states have already (recently) issued new school safety reports:  Florida, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania.

   And some states (e.g., Massachusetts) issued comprehensive reports within the past two to five years.
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   The point is that:  Collectively, there is already a great amount of excellent information available to help districts and schools analyze and address their preventative and responsive needs in the area of school safety, student violence, and school shootings.

   And while the Federal Commission may (being kind) add to the information, most states are already taking action, and—for the states that are waiting, the wait may cost lives.
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School Shootings and Students’ Health, Mental Health, and Wellness

   Over the years in writing this Blog, I have addressed the issue of health, mental health, and wellness innumerable times.  I have always emphasized that the goals and primary targets need to be students’ social, emotional, and behavioral self-management skills.

   Said a different way, children and adolescents need to be (in a developmentally-sensitive way) taught, prompted, reinforced, and corrected (when needed) as they demonstrate and apply their interpersonal, prosocial problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional control and coping skills.

   Most students learn these skills through directed and consistent instruction at home and in their classrooms as part of a Social-Emotional Learning and classroom management process.  Other students (including those with apparent mental health issues) need different intensity levels (tiers) of services, supports, programs, and interventions.  Ultimately, these interventions are identified through a diagnostic assessment process— similar to what a medical doctor does for a persistent or serious physiological condition.

   I have also detailed the necessary science-to-practice of self-management components for districts and schools:  Positive Relationships and School/Classroom Climates; Identified Behavioral Expectations and Skill Instruction; Student Motivation and Accountability; Consistency (in implementing the above four components); and Applications to Different Settings, Students (Peer groups), and Individual Student Circumstances (e.g., bullying, trauma, disability, homelessness, home, or medical situations).

   The point here and the relationship to school shootings is:

   When students learn and consistently demonstrate interpersonal, prosocial problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional control and coping skills—individually and from peer-to-peer—the probability of a school shooting or other acts of violence decreases.

   Moreover, when schools are implementing all five of the self-management components with integrity, the probability of identifying and serving students with significant mental health needs increases. 

   This again decreases the probability of a school shooting or other acts of violence.

[CLICK HERE for an Expanded Discussion in the Full Version of this Blog]
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Already Known:  Enhancing School Safety Using Threat Assessments

   Another area that states, districts, and schools do not need to wait for involves conducting threat assessments.  In fact, the U.S. Department of Human Services (which ironically is directly seated on the Federal Commission on School Safety) published, Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model: An Operational Guide for Preventing Targeted School Violence two months ago while the Commission was still deliberating.

   Quite honestly, this Report represents an important contribution to the school violence/shooting prevention conversation.  Without being too cynical, it may well surpass any contribution that comes out of the Commission as a whole.

[CLICK HERE for an Expanded Discussion of this Report in the Full Version of this Blog]
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   Beyond this document, and as noted above, states, districts, and schools are encouraged to look at the existing work and deliberations of others. 

   While new, innovative practices are always emerging, there already are many excellent school safety blueprints and examples of successful practices.  If anything, there probably are more ideas and suggestions than any district or school could reasonably implement.
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   Given the Federal Commission on School Safety’s politicized decisions regarding what topics to emphasize, which speakers to invite, and what locations to site-visit, its Final Report will need to be reviewed through a lens of objectivity and practicality relative to preventing and responding to school shootings.

   Critically, this is also true of the other already-existing reports and recommendations. 

   Indeed, we cannot afford to be investing time, money, training, and other resources on school safety strategies that have not been objectively evaluated for their efficacy and impact.  We cannot risk any more lives on financially-motivated promotions, in contrast to evidence-based practices.

   In the end, we must be guided by the following “truths”:
  • Districts and schools must re-evaluate their current understandings of the multi-tiered characteristics and factors that will keep their facilities, students, and staff safe.  Even if this was done last year (especially before Parkland), new assessments are recommended now.
  • While district and school facilities need to be physically safe—both structurally and technologically, leaders need to strategically plan for the health, mental health, and wellness factors that help these facilities to be safe on a social, emotional, and behavioral level
  • To this end, districts and schools need to evaluate how they “match up” and what they are systematically and planfully doing relative to the five Science-to-Practice Components of student self-management described above.
  • Districts and schools need to look at their threat assessment processes, along with the school, district, and community resources needed and available to facilitate these processes.  They need continually ensure that people and processes, assets and agencies are aligned and coordinated on an ongoing basis.
  • Districts and schools need to review their data-bases to identify current students who may need additional multi-tiered services, supports, programs, and interventions—helping them to be more successful relative to their interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional control and coping skills.
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   While there are still so many things to do at the beginning of this new school year, school safety must be at the top of the list.

   As noted earlier, the federal government and many states have made millions of dollars available to help our schools, staff, and especially students be safer.  Thus, to a large degree, money is not the problem.

   The problem is how districts and schools are going to use the money.

   And if money is not invested in the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of students, all of the funding devoted to our schools’ physical, structural, and enforcement status will not matter.

   If there is anything that I can do to assist your district or school in its social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health arenas, please do not hesitate to contact me. 

   As many of you know, I have been working in these areas for virtually my entire career.  I am NOT chasing the “school safety ambulance.”  I have been advocating for and helping schools to be safe even before the first wave of school shootings back in the 1990s.



Saturday, August 18, 2018

Students’ Mental Health Status, and School Safety, Discipline, and Disproportionality: An Anthology of Previous Blogs

Integrating Successful Research-to-Practice Strategies into the New School Year (Part II of II)

 [CLICK HERE for the Full Version of this Blog]

Dear Colleagues,

Introduction:  Change is Hard

   As I continue to collaborate with educators across the country to help them open their schools for the new year (this week I am training in an Alaskan Early Childhood Center), I am struck by this primary theme:

   Most of my work—as a consultant, psychologist, and fellow educator—is about changing behavior.

   Indeed, depending on who I am working for, I am often tasked with changing or modifying the behavior of administrators, related services and special education professionals, general education teachers and support personnel, and—of course—students at all age levels and with all kinds of needs.

   To do this, I need to:
  • Develop strong and positive relationships and trust with my client-colleagues, the students and their parents, and the community and its various constituencies;
  • Be an effective communicator and professional development guide;
  • Provide ongoing mentoring, technical assistance, collegial consultation, and coaching; and
  • Offer honest feedback that encourages continuous growth, but also is constructive and specific.

   Changing behavior is not easy. 

   Sometimes it does not occur because people just do not understand what they are supposed to do.  Sometimes because they do not know the steps, or they have not mastered the skills.  Sometimes, they just need more time and practice—or they have reached their limit, and additional practice is not going to make a difference.  Sometimes, pressure from competing interests are undermining the motivation to change. . . or there is no motivation at all.

   My work is intriguing and complex.  And success is not guaranteed.

   But success will never occur if the process of change is not complemented with the evidence-based content that drives the change.

   And this is what today’s Blog (continued from Part I) is all about.
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A Blog of Blogs

   As we enter (or approach) the new school year, I thought that it would be useful to review some of the most popular Blog articles that I have written over the past year or more.

   And my blogs do periodically address the processes underlying school and schooling success, I more often discuss the content that represents what administrators, teachers, support staff, and students need to demonstrate or change.

   Indeed, if educators (and others) don’t know how (for example) to organize a school’s staff into shared leadership committees, differentiate instruction, teach a social skills lesson, or implement a cognitive-behavioral intervention. . . then all the discussion, planning, and arrangements in the world are not going to deliver the needed or desired outcomes.

   Thus, I have organized the content of my recent (and past) Blogs into four clusters:
  • School Improvement, Strategic Planning, and Effective School and Schooling Practices
  • The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA/ESSA) and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support
  • School Climate, (Disproportionate) Discipline, Safety, and Classroom Management
  • Students’ Mental Health Status and Wellness

   In Part I (August 4th) of this “Series,” I provided chronological lists of the Blogs directly related to the first two areas.

   [CLICK HERE for Part I]

   In today’s Part II, I will briefly overview the last two areas—and then provide the Dates and Titles of the most important and relevant past Blog messages in reverse chronological order. 

[CLICK HERE for the Full Version of this Blog]
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To read one of the original Blogs cited below:

   Go back to the Blog “Home Page” on this website, or CLICK HERE

   Look at the right-hand side of this Blog page and click on the year when the Blog article was written.

   Find the desired Blog on the resulting web-page and click on it.  Each year’s Blogs listed there are also in reverse chronological order.
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School Climate, (Disproportionate) Discipline, Safety, and Classroom Management

   With the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA/ESSA), the importance of looking at and nurturing the non-academic factors that impact students’ academic proficiency is more important than ever before.  This especially includes ensuring that all schools are safe with consistently positive classroom climates, and that school discipline and classroom management are an inherent part of the “academic program.”

   Beyond ESEA/ESSA, however, school safety and discipline are constantly discussed in national reports and research, in the popular press, and on social media. As such, over the past three years, I have written a number of Blogs addressing, for example:  student engagement, the role and impact of school resource officers, student violence and injuries, and my ongoing concern that many school discipline “programs” have not been independently and comprehensively validated, and that they too often “promise the moon, but do not deliver the cheese.”
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This Year’s School Discipline Lessons Learned
  • ESEA/ESSA (2015) and IDEA (2004) do not cite, mandate, or even recommend the PBIS (upper case, with acronym) framework advocated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), its tax-funded National Technical Assistance Centers, or the state departments of education who have accepted federal funds contingent on implementing these specific frameworks.
  • Instead, these federal laws require—under very specific circumstances—the consideration of “positive behavioral supports and interventions” (lower case) for specific groups of students.
  • Research commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education concluded that OSEP’s PBIS framework has significant psychometric and procedural flaws that are preventing their full implementation, and (at times) delaying needed services and supports to students who are demonstrating significant social, emotional, or behavioral challenges.
  • The ultimate goal of a school discipline initiative is the developmentally-appropriate preschool through high school teaching and mastery of students’ social, emotional, and behavioral self-management skills.  These outcomes are manifested through students’ effective interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional control and coping skills.
  • The scientific foundation of an effective school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management initiative involves:  Positive School and Classroom Climates and Prosocial Teacher-Student Relationships; Behavioral Expectations and Social Skills Instruction; Behavioral Accountability and Student Motivation; Consistency across All of these Components; and Application and Extensions to All School Settings and Peer Groups.
  • This scientific foundation is the same foundation that addresses the social, emotional, and behavioral effects of student poverty, trauma, teasing, bullying, and disproportionality.  This foundation is more defensible than the research-thin character education, mindfulness, restorative justice, and social-emotional learning framework approaches.
   For a chronological summary of the 38 Blogs in this Area:

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Students’ Mental Health Status and Wellness

   Over the years, numerous epidemiological reports have estimated that up to 40% of students, during their school-aged careers, experience a mental health challenge that bears formal services or interventions.  More recently, the connection between students’ mental health and the all-too-frequent school shootings (relative to the perpetrators, the victims, and the direct and indirect witnesses) has been tragically drawn. 

   And yet, these mental health and wellness “discussions” in our professional (and popular) press, often miss different levels of multi-tiered prevention, strategic intervention, and crisis management/intensive services specificity.

   Over the past three or more years, I have written a number of Blogs that have described an evidence-based blueprint with the components and pieces needed to implement effective multi-tiered social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health services, supports, programs, and interventions.  As a school psychologist, this blueprint and these approaches are not focused on treating students’ labels. 

   Instead, they are focused on (a) changing the emotional, affective, attributional, and social-behavioral interactions that “represent” (or the diagnostic criteria for these) students’ clinical labels; and (b) ensuring that the chosen approaches are directly linked (and are responding) to the underlying root causes of those interactions.

   This is a skills- and strengths-based approach.  It involves a continuum involving multi-faceted, systems-based assessment and intervention resources to direct, intensive, one-on-one evidence-based clinical therapy.

   Even though they are outside their training and experience, some educators nonetheless grasp for one-size-fits-all mental health “solutions” that may actually exacerbate the existing problems.  Others do not have the psychological experts available to guide the process, so they depend on those who are “closest” to being “the experts”—putting them in an unfair and untenable position.

   For a chronological summary of the 10 Blogs in this Area:

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   I hope that all of you had a great summer break . . . but it is now time to “hit the re-set button.” 

   As always, the new school year offers new opportunities and new beginnings.  Indeed, we all have a chance to build on last year’s successes, to “retire” last year’s disappointments, and to analyze, work on, and close last year’s gaps.  To this end, I hope that today’s Blog—and Part I on August 4th—will help you to attain these goals.

   To assist further:  If you would like to discuss any of the areas addressed in this and the other cited Blog messages, I am always happy to provide a free one-hour consultation conference call with you, your School Improvement, or your Multi-Tiered Services team.  These calls are designed to help you clarify your needs and directions on behalf of your students, staff, colleagues, school(s), and district.

   Please accept my best wishes for a great beginning of the school year! I hope the coming year is everything that you hope and want it to be.