Betsy DeVos: positive schools are safe schools

When students come to school, they need to focus on learning and growing. They shouldn’t need to worry about where to hide in the event of a school shooting. Sadly, mass shootings in Parkland, Fla.; Santa Fe, Texas; and, most recently, Noblesville, Ind., have made plain why many students fear the possibility of such a scenario in their own school. That’s unacceptable. No student, no parent, no teacher should have to worry about their safety at school. Enough is enough. America demands action.

In the wake of the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas, President Donald Trump took swift action and put forward a number of recommendations for Congress, states and local communities to adopt to make schools safer. Congress responded by including a number of his recommendations in the omnibus spending bill passed this year. That’s a good start, but more remains to be done.

To help local communities prevent future tragedies, President Trump asked me to chair the Federal Commission on School Safety, alongside fellow commissioners Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. The commission will provide recommendations to prevent school violence — with a special focus on strengthening school security, improving access to effective mental health treatment, increasing information sharing among appropriate authorities and ensuring that successful programs are sufficiently supported by federal, state and local funding.

Schools and communities across the country have enacted best practices that are working. Our commission will identify and amplify them. That’s what brought us to Frank Hebron-Harman Elementary School in Anne Arundel County this week.

Creating a positive school climate is crucial to combating the social and emotional isolation that can drive students to violent behavior. As part of its holistic approach to fostering a safe and supportive climate throughout the school district, Anne Arundel County Public Schools has implemented Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a program that assists school personnel to develop a positive school culture, with the goal of improving academics and social behavior. PBIS also allows for local flexibility in the selection and implementation of the specific practices that best suit the school’s resources and needs.

We saw PBIS in action during our visit to Hebron-Harman, where students participated in whole-group and small-group activities that help them build relationships with their peers. We also heard from nearby schools that have successfully implemented PBIS — each in different ways to best serve the unique needs of their students.

PBIS is currently implemented in over 25,000 schools, but it is not a cure-all, and it may not be the right fit for every school. There are a number of different ways to foster a positive school culture and tackle social isolation, but they require heartfelt compassion and commitment from educators. I think of a simple but effective effort: A teacher rearranges her classroom seating every two weeks, but before doing so, she asks each student to write down the names of five students they’d like to sit close to, and five they think would like to sit close to them. Through this practice, she can identify which students don’t have connections with their classmates. This is something teachers across the country could start doing today.

It is imperative that we find meaningful ways to help children connect with their school community and address their social and emotional learning needs. We encourage parents, educators and local officials throughout our nation to begin the conversation on how they can best create safe and supportive learning environments in their own communities.

Naturally, primary responsibility for the physical security of schools rests with states and local communities. But our commission will continue the important work of identifying the root causes of violence in our schools and communities, and to disseminate solutions that educators and families can confidently implement to make their schools safe and secure places of learning.

Betsy DeVos is the U.S. secretary of education and chair of the Federal Commission on School Safety. Members of the public with ideas on how to improve school safety can write to safety@ed.gov.

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