The following statement was delivered on August 17, 2018 by KSBA Executive Director Kerri Schelling to the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education and the Federal Commission on School Safety during a general session of the National School Boards Association Summer Leadership event.
Proposed answers to school violence often center around stopping would-be offenders in their tracks. The objective is to make it harder for someone with ill-intent to perpetrate tragic events that have become commonplace on the evening news. Erecting physical barriers can make a school building safer, but eliminating the social, emotional and learning barriers for children can make a school safer and more inclusive.
Kentucky got a head start on this concept more than 25 years ago, when its landmark education reform law provided for something novel: family resource and youth services centers, a link between schools and their struggling students and families. Staff at the centers identified students and families needing help and, partnering with community agencies and organizations, furnished everything from warm winter coats and new shoes to referrals for counseling and health services.
While Kentucky school district leaders have, over the years, added security vestibules, cameras, metal detectors and other hardware, they also added anti-bullying programs, character and leadership projects, school resource officers, safety tip lines and mental health professionals. Most recently, schools are training staff in Mental Health First Aid, a national program, and applying the concepts of trauma-informed care to classroom instruction. Students are teaching one another how to be resilient in a program called Sources of Strength.
Our Commonwealth’s 867 school board members are elected experts in what their local communities want and need, and that includes strategies for safer schools. That expertise, in part, stems from the tragedies in Carter County Schools in 1993, Heath High School in McCracken County in 1997, and, most recently, Marshall County High School – all instances of gun violence resulting in loss of innocent life. Because of these, and other similar events across the nation, our awareness of the problem grew, as did our understanding of the underlying causes and the appropriate services around them.
As the association for Kentucky’s school board members, we truly believe the management and application of these solutions ultimately fall to the individual districts. We feel we have a firm grasp on what works for us. The kinds of social-emotional programs and structural improvements that will be helpful in one district may not be appropriate in another. That is where local school boards provide their expertise. Any federal assistance should not stand in the way of local decision making.
Kentucky’s own Senator Mitch McConnell just recently pointed to school safety as a local issue, and the federal government’s role as that of an appropriator of funds. We agree with Senator McConnell on appropriation of additional permanent funding, including funds that would specifically address students’ mental and emotional well-being. Local school district budgets that help pay for these services are suffering, as they have been forced to take up the slack for shrinking state and federal dollars.
In addition to funding, our federal government also must support schools through research and by serving as the national clearinghouse of vital information relating to school safety. I imagine that is a big part of why we are here today. I applaud the commission’s efforts to build on the dialogue already taking place at the local, state and national levels. From these conversations, we must now act.
On behalf of the Kentucky School Boards Association, I challenge this commission, our legislators and this administration to approach this incredibly complex issue with the same rationale and foresight that we have with so many diseases endemic to our society. Make no mistake, violence in our schools is a disease. And like an aggressive disease in its advanced stages, mere treatment may help to manage some of the more obvious symptoms. It may prolong survival for a short time. But the problem remains, ravaging the host from the inside out.
Like cancer, or AIDS, or heart disease, a preventive approach beginning years before a potential diagnosis can exponentially decrease the threat. Until mental and emotional health is considered an inseparable part of educating the “whole child,” and until it receives the attention and the funding on par with its proven significance in the development of our children, we will continue to see these tragedies.
Our commitment to the long game will be what ultimately saves our students from paralyzing anxiety and depression, unmanaged anger, self-doubt and other effects of adverse childhood experiences. The investment, however, is up front. By addressing these issues before they escalate to violence or bullying or self-harm – as part of the fundamental mission of public education – we will eradicate this disease. We will have also improved the quality of education for all students.