New York state's Safe Schools Task Force, launched one year ago after the heartbreaking school shootings in Newtown, Conn., has formed active work groups to examine school culture, school infrastructure and community commitment.
The members hail from education; unions, including NYSUT; social and mental health services; parenting groups and law enforcement. They are analyzing the best physical characteristics of a school — secure buildings, grounds and buses — and asking: Are safety plans effective when students and educators face an emergency?
The task force is also charged with evaluating the kinds of safety planning and training that need to be in place in each district. Members are working to create unified goals for bringing non-violent, non-discriminatory and respectful behaviors and values into school hallways, classrooms and on buses.
Instead of inventing new programs, the task force is probing how to improve the impact and the effectiveness of existing laws that govern school safety. New York's Safe Schools Against Violence in Education (SAVE) law, for example, requires school and district safety plans and codes of conduct.
Task Force member Kathleen Donahue, NYSUT vice president overseeing health and safety, said some schools that use SAVE's reporting procedures — the Violent and Disruptive Incident Reporting (VADIR) — have minimized problems to avoid being placed on a list of dangerous schools.
Other schools have called in law enforcement too quickly to mitigate problems, she said. Legal action can cause a student to get arrested for minor infractions and sent to court. Being in the criminal justice system has a major, negative impact and hinders students from returning to school, she said.
"There is also disproportionate discipline and more severe discipline for students of color," she said, making school discipline a social justice issue.
Task Force members are examining how laws might be revamped so they are used for positive change, not punitive.
After the school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, the federal government provided grants for school resource officers. These officers established relationships with students, provided educational programs and served as a deterrent to violence. That grant money has dried up, and many schools feel a void without those officers, said Wendy Hord, NYSUT health and safety specialist.
Establishing school safety "goes beyond planning for the shooter," Hord said. School climates are made healthier by the presence of school counselors, social workers and psychologists. "School is the hub for mental health, a sense of community and continuity."
Hord noted that many schools are collaborating with community organizations and youth advocacy groups, such as Girls, Inc. or Big Brothers/Big Sisters, to provide more outlets for students.
A newer law influencing schools is the New York Secure Ammunitions and Firearms Enforcement Act (SAFE), which was passed in early 2013. It cracks down on gun possession on school grounds or school buses and supports school districts in implementing effective school safety plans.
The task force is to develop and present a consolidated report to the Regents by June 2014.
NYSUT continues to push for inclusion of school employees in the 2006 Public Employer Workplace Violence Prevention Law, which covers public employees but excludes those in education. The law requires the performance of risk evaluation; reporting violent incidents; prevention programs; and training.
For links to school violence prevention resources, visit www.nysut.org/resources.
Everyone Has Rights
The right to education. The right to freedom. The right to free expression. The right to dignity and respect at work. The right to rest. The right to a healthy standard of living. And many more.
What right is most important to you?
We invite K-5 students to create a public service announcement based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and enter the video contest. Deadline is April 1, 2014. For entry information, visit www.nysut.org.
Sponsored by NYSUT and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.