Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick today signed into law provisions to create conditions for “safe and supportive schools” intended to improve education outcomes for children statewide, and giving momentum to the state's trauma-informed schools movement. They were included in The Reduction of Gun Violence bill (No. 4376). This groundbreaking advance was achieved when advocates seized the opportunity to add behavioral health in the schools to the options under consideration as state officials searched for ways to strengthen one of the nation’s more restrictive gun laws in the aftermath of the tragic shooting of schoolchildren in Newtown, CT.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo saw the connection between reducing gun violence and school achievement and was instrumental in the bill’s passage. When the original sponsor of a Safe and Support Schools Act, Katherine Clark, left the state legislature for the U.S. House of Representatives, some advocates were concerned the void would not be filled. Their fears were assuaged when Rep. Ruth Balser of Newton and Sen. Sal DiDomenico of Boston became lead sponsors.
The schools act supporters were jubilant that the legislation they labored on for years was incorporated in the gun violence bill now signed into law, and expressed deep relief and excitement about the achievement. They also said the hard work of statewide implementation now begins.
The law requires the state education department to develop a framework for safe and supportive schools, first developed by a task force established by the legislature in 2008, that provides a foundation to help schools create a learning environment in which all students can flourish. The framework is based on a public health approach that includes fostering the emotional wellbeing of all students, preventive services and supports, and intensive services for those with significant needs.
Within the framework, schools are encouraged, but not mandated, to develop action plans that will be incorporated into the already required School Improvement Plans. The law also provides a self-assessment tool to help in the creation of the plans.
Under the leadership of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI), a coalition of the Massachusetts Advocates for Children and Harvard Law School, the “Safe and Supportive Schools Coalition” was formed to move the legislation forward. A campaign was created that included an advocacy site and regular communication with legislators. (For the text of the legislation and other information on the bill and the campaign to enact it, go to TraumaSensitiveSchools.org.)
Susan Cole, director of the TLPI, says the framework will help schools integrate services and align initiatives so that students feel safe -- emotionally, socially and physically -- and connected at school, and are able to succeed. The legislation, she says, emphasizes overall school operations rather than specific programs such as anti-bullying and truancy reduction. The framework, according to Cole, promotes a whole-school approach to help all children, including those who have or are experiencing adversity.
The bill also had the “wholehearted support” of the Boston Teachers Union according to Angela Cristiani, political director for the union and a school psychologist. She said the safe and supportive schools’ provisions that address prevention in schools provided the “missing piece” in the gun violence reduction legislation. Cristiani described Boston as an early adopter of the safe and supportive schools framework and said the law makes “real reform” possible statewide and provides a model for states across the nation. The new law, she says, will provide the tools for schools to support children to achieve their full potential and to act when a child is having difficulties. When tragedies occur, Cristiani says people often reflect back to the time a child was in school and trouble signs were present but not acted upon.
The bill continues a small grant program, funded at $200,000 in FY 2014, to support “exemplar schools” that are models for creating safe and supportive schools,and authorizes technical assistance to help schools use a self-assessment tool and develop school action plans. It also creates a commission to assist with statewide implementation of the framework and make recommendations for additional legislation. Advocates will have to return to the legislature to secure funding for staffing and other costs related to the initiative. According to Cole, this is “doable” since the funds to implement the law are relatively modest.
Cole says it has been an iterative process leading to the enactment of the law, one that will continue with its implementation. The early research conducted in the state by Bessel van der Kolk on psychological trauma and later the CDC's ACE Study were part of the foundation for the initiatives the state undertook, including the Trauma-Sensitive Schools grants starting in 2000 and subsequent studies and reports that followed. The “hard part” as described by advocates will now begin with the law’s implementation.
The summary of the bill on the TLPI website highlights what they describe as a “groundbreaking” definition of safe and supportive schools:
“… schools that foster a safe, positive, healthy and inclusive whole-school learning environment that (i) enables students to develop positive relationships with adults and peers, regulate their emotions and behavior, achieve academic and non-academic success in school and maintain physical and psychological health and well-being and (ii) integrates services and aligns initiatives thatpromote students’ behavioral health, including social and emotional learning, bullying prevention, trauma sensitivity, dropout prevention, truancy reduction, children’s mental health, foster care and homeless youth education, inclusion ofstudents with disabilities, positive behavioral approaches that reduce suspensions and expulsions and other similar initiatives.”
In addition to the new definition, the site summarizes the key provisions (in italics):
▪ Requires the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop state-wide Safe and Supportive Schools Framework consistent with the Framework recommended by the Behavioral Health and Public Schools Task Force. (The Task Force issued an interim report in December 2009 that included the original framework.)
▪ Enables and encourages all schools to develop action plans for implementing the Safe and Supportive Schools Framework; the action plans would be incorporated in the School Improvement Plans that are already required under MGL c. 69 § 1I; (This citation refers to the Education Reform Act.)
▪ Provides a self-assessment tool to help schools create their action plans and, subject to appropriation, provides technical assistance to schools and districts;
▪ Establishes a Safe and Supportive Schools Grant Program to fund exemplar schools that serve as models for creating safe and supportive schools; (A small grant program with an appropriation of $200,000 is currently underway.) and
▪ Establishes a commission to assist with statewide implementation of the Safe and Supportive Schools Framework and to make ongoing recommendations and propose drafts of legislation