A Massachusetts commission of educators and mental health leaders is helping schools create safe and supportive learning environments for students.
The 19-member Safe and Supportive Schools Commission was created as part of the Safe and Supportive Schools Framework through An Act Relative to the Reduction of Gun Violence in 2014.
The law directed the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE) to develop a state-wide safe and supportive schools framework and self-assessment tool, based on those created and outlined by the Behavioral Health and Public Schools (BHPS) Task Force in 2011.
Commission Co-Chair Susan Cole, director of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, a joint program of Harvard Law School and the Massachusetts Advocates for Children, said she believes this is the first such effort in the nation. “It’s calling for a whole school culture change, looking at the whole school environment and working with the community to address the needs of the whole child.”
Among the commission’s responsibilities is to make recommendations to the ESE on updating, improving and refining the framework and the self-assessment tool; to propose steps for improving schools’ access to clinically, culturally and linguistically appropriate services; to identify and recommend evidenced-based training programs and professional development for school staff; and to develop recommendations on best practices for collaboration with families, including families of children with behavioral health needs.
The aim is to foster safe, positive, healthy, and inclusive whole-school learning environments that enable students to develop positive relationships, self-regulation skills, health and well-being and achieve both academic and nonacademic success in school; and to integrate services and align initiatives that promote students’ behavioral health.
The law defines safe and supportive schools as those that recognize the connections between academic success and students feeling safe enough to make friends, form strong relationships with adults and take risks in the classroom in order to succeed.
Cole said that while there are many individual initiatives that address student issues such as behavioral health, truancy, and bullying, one of the goals of the 2014 legislation was to create something comprehensive and holistic.
“The idea was that if we could integrate and align these initiatives that schools would be able to create a solid foundation for learning,” Cole said. Once the environment is working better, teachers and students can delve into academics in a meaningful way.
Melissa Pearrow, Ph.D., associate professor of counseling and school psychology and director of the school psychology Ph.D. program at UMass-Boston, who sits on the Commission and was also on the BHPS Task Force, said one of the priorities is professional development and creating the organizational structures that schools need to support staff.
“Do teachers have a sense of strategies to support students in the classroom so they aren’t alienated? Do they have access to support personnel if there’s a student who needs some support? Do they have community connections? All those things are part of the professional development plan, but all require policy and procedures,” Pearrow said.
“The goal is to have school environments that are supportive, that students feel safe, that they want to come to school and learn, and feel safe taking chances when they are learning,” Pearrow said.
Commission Co-Chair Rachelle Engler Bennett, associate commissioner of the Student and Family Support program of the ESE, said the Commission is working to update the self-assessment tool and make it more user-friendly and hopes to have a revised version available for the 2017-2018 school year.
The tool has already been used by approximately 125 schools in 70 districts, Bennett said.
The Commission also aims to guide schools to develop and implement action plans to meet their local needs, and encourages the collaboration of schools with community partnerships and families.
The self-assessment tool is a locally tailored process, Cole said. “The tool works best if the town or the school or a whole district and community identifies what the urgent issue is, and then looks through the framework and the tool with that in mind to identify gaps and what is needed to address this issue.”
For example, one district that used the tool was experiencing suicides in their community. “In that district they began to really look at the stress the students were under,” Cole said. Better linkages with mental health organizations were established; a behavioral health coordinator was hired to help refer students to services.
“That’s the kind of thing we are hoping to spawn are these locally created solutions,” Cole said.
By Pamela Berard