A Rational Approach to School Safety and Student Performance

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school_classroomDebate is raging in communities across the country about the role of police in our nation’s schools. While the discussion is long overdue, too often the debate centers on the role and presence of police alone.

Some ask how many armed police officers are needed to keep school buildings free of violence. Others push back, asking whether increasing the number of officers patrolling school hallways and playgrounds will sometimes make society less safe in the long run, by increasing arrests and incarceration of more youth who would benefit more from rehabilitation services in their home communities where they can remain in school and graduate.

This debate played out late last year on Capitol Hill where Assistant Senate Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin, D-IL, presided over a congressional hearing about ending the school-to-prison pipeline. The subcommittee hearing focused attention on the get-tough disciplinary practices that steer students out of schools through suspension, expulsion or police involvement and into the criminal justice system.

What receives too little attention in these often emotional discussions is the fact that there are effective strategies for change and that those strategies produce greater school safety, better educational outcomes for all students and do so at much less cost than sending them deep into the juvenile justice system.

One of those proven strategies is Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a national best practice model for reducing disciplinary referrals, school suspensions and expulsions.

What is it? Better known in school circles as PBIS, this model is a way of ensuring that all students have access to the most effective and accurately implemented instructional and behavioral practices and interventions possible. In effect, all school personnel must recognize that they are educators and that role requires the support of every student, vigilance for each child’s well being and the creation of a positive atmosphere for every child.

Maybe that is what we all expect of our schools, but it requires the overt understanding by all school employees that the mission of education includes more than the schedule and curriculum. Recognizing each student, saying “good morning” and knowing a child’s family are the simplest manifestations of a positive atmosphere.

Second, schools must make data-based decisions for instruction of behavior and academics. Like the juvenile justice system, schools must collect data on youth in their care, their actions and abilities and then respond with resources and practices in order to support better outcomes. Take school discipline for example. If fighting is an issue, where does it happen? Maybe there is a stairway where rival gang members must transfer between classes in close quarters. Maybe there is a classroom or teacher with greater numbers of disciplinary referrals than others. Data will tell those stories.

Next comes the “tiered approach” within PBIS. All kids receive the benefits of a positive school environment. Between 80 and 90 percent of students will require no more efforts, but the rest will need more targeted interventions in a rapid response to disciplinary problems. PBIS implementation studies indicate that only 1 to 5 percent of students will need intensive, individual, assessment-based actions to respond to the needs of this small group. Once these higher-needs youth are identified, wrap-around planning for the complex emotional/behavioral needs of these students and their families can yield better disciplinary and educational outcomes.

Thousands of schools across America are involved in the training and implementation of PBIS. The U.S. Department of Education provides the science and technical assistance for local school districts to change the way they do business. It results in more tools for teachers, fewer office disciplinary referrals and fewer suspensions and expulsions for preventable and predictable problems. And any teacher will confirm that more time in class and fewer classroom disruptions yield better educational attainment for all students.

Of course, there is a cost to PBIS, but the absence of it also has a price. The Washington Post recently reported that more than 3 million students a year are suspended or expelled from U.S. schools. That happens at great cost to taxpayers, as well as many young lives that never are rehabilitated. However, schools using PBIS can save by reducing the time administrators spend each time a student is sent to the principal’s office and each time a school teacher must stop instructing to break up a fight and attend disciplinary hearings.

Lisa Jacobs, Illinois program coordinator for MacArthur’s Models for Change Initiative puts it this way, “A fundamental fact is this: pushing kids out of school and into the justice system unnecessarily is a deeply flawed approach to school disciplinary issues. It may address a problem in the short term, but produces negative outcomes for children, undermines the ability of the justice system to function effectively, wastes scarce resources and can actually increase risks to public safely. Simply put, kids belong in schools and communities, where they can learn, grow and become productive members of our communities.”

Schoolwide PBIS can help put a plug in the school–to–prison pipeline.

Photo by Indiana Public Media | Flickr

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