Implementing Legal Strategies for Creating Safe and Supportive School Environments
AbstractStopping the overuse of expulsion as an approach to discipline, closing the achievement gap, ending pernicious bullying, teaching social and emotional skills, and halting the school-to-jail pipeline require more than just adding new laws to old ones. They require safe and supportive school-wide cultures where all students can learn, behave appropriately, and form relationships with adults and peers. These learning environments recognize the connection between academic success and students who feel safe enough to make friends, form strong relationships with adults, and take risks in order to excel. They teach students how to self-regulate their emotions, behaviors, and attention so that it is possible for them to focus, behave appropriately, and learn. However, creating such environments is not easy. More children than we ever imagined, according to the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, have lived through adversities that range from abuse to homelessness, from community violence to domestic violence. When children enter school with expectations of danger resulting from these experiences, they may not be able to focus, behave appropriately, or learn at their optimal levels. Creating a safe and supportive school culture means addressing the role that trauma is playing in the lives of children. Unfortunately, the laws regulating our schools are fragmented. They tend to be narrowly focused on particular issues, such as bullying or truancy prevention, while missing the source of many of these problems in students’ traumatic experiences and the need for supportive school-wide communities. The Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI) has been working on refocusing the effort, so that schools have the time and resources to integrate and align the many initiatives necessary to create supportive whole school environments and better develop a more holistic foundation for learning that can address the educational needs of all of their students, including those who may be traumatized. The TLPI experience suggests that by modifying laws to recognize the critical aspects of school operations that are involved in whole school culture change and the process of collaboration that is needed, conditions can be set for schools to create responsive and supportive school-wide cultures. These cultures can avoid the use of punitive approaches while recognizing the connections between social, emotional, and educational needs. This paper describes the development of an integrating educational framework organized by six elements of school operation, its incremental incorporation into various Massachusetts laws regarding bullying, truancy, and behavioral health, and various policies used to implement student support initiatives. The culmination of the paper is a description of the recent enactment into law of an overarching “safe and supportive schools framework” that is based on these elements of school operations and designed to align and connect all of the initiatives.
Susan Cole, Implementing Legal Strategies for Creating Safe and Supportive School Environments, 5 J. Applied Res. on Child. art. 18 (2014).