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School task force offers ways to prevent violence

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Arizona schools need everything from tip lines to alternatives to detention if they want to promote a safe environment and reduce violence, according to a new report released November 18.

The findings of the School Safety Task Force, more than a year in the making, also recommend:

– Providing more mental health counselors and social workers.

– Funding after-school programs, clubs and activities.

– Implementing “culturally sensitive and anti-racist curriculum.”

– Establishing programs to deal with bullying, discrimination, harassment and violence.

Task force members also said it is important for school leaders and educators to come from – and reflect – the school community they serve.

Members of March For Our Lives Arizona start a makeshift memorial and join others attending a vigil for the victims of the latest school shooting in Texas, at the Arizona Capitol, Monday, May 21, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Members of March For Our Lives Arizona start a makeshift memorial and join others attending a vigil for the victims of the latest school shooting in Texas, at the Arizona Capitol, Monday, May 21, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

And they want protections based on a student’s actual or perceived race, color, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, religion or any other distinguishing characteristics.

But there was no clear finding on the controversial issue of whether there should be police – school resource officers – on every campus.

The task force actually has its roots in the March For Our Lives movement, formed in the wake of violent and deadly school shootings in prior years.

When legislation to look for ways to deal with the problem faltered, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman decided to create the task force anyway with the goal of creating a “model school safety plan” and assembling information about existing resources for Arizona schools.

Maya Zuckerberg, the political co-director of March For Our Lives and a member of the task force, said much of what’s in the plan is designed to prevent problems before they occur.

She acknowledged that the report does not deal with weapons, including who has access to them, which had been a prime focus of her organization.

“However, we felt that at this time this was our best option,” she said. If nothing else, Zuckerberg said, it made no sense to try to raise that issue in a report being prepared through the state Department of Education.

“So we decided to focus this report more on preventing anything from ever happening, anyone from ever wanting to commit a crime with a gun, rather than dealing directly with the gun itself,” she said.

That’s reflected in the report.

“Students who feel connected to their campus are less likely to engage in risky or disruptive behaviors, less likely to miss school, to engage in substance abuse or distribution, and to have fewer discipline referrals,” the recommendations say. That, however, requires school leaders to make conscious efforts to create “inclusive environments on campus” for both students and staff.

And the report says that there need to be programs so that students feel safe at schools.

Hoffman said that, in turn, goes to the issue of having an anti-racist curriculum.

Arizona Department of Education Superintendent Kathy Hoffman speaks the latest Arizona coronavirus update during a news conference Thursday, July 23, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York, Pool)

Arizona Department of Education Superintendent Kathy Hoffman. (AP Photo/Matt York, Pool)

“We have seen on TV and on social media the murders of people of color,” she said. That, in turn resulted in nationwide protests.

“What we’re getting at here through our school safety work is that all students need to feel safe at school and, in particular, making sure that students of color feel safe and welcome in their school environment because that is a prerequisite of being ready to learn,” Hoffman said.

A closely related issue goes to the question of school resource officers and whether discipline issues that used to be handled internally now are becoming criminal and police matters.

“We do believe that SROs can lead to a school-to-prison pipeline, especially with all the protests right now with George Floyd,” Zuckerberg said.

Floyd is the Minneapolis man who died earlier this year after a police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. Zuckerberg said it “affected our thinking on this issue.”

Hoffman said that needs to be “a conversation at the local level,” one that involves students and communities of color.

“It’s especially our communities of color that are feeling unsafe by having SROs on campus,” she said. And Zuckerberg said if there are police assigned to schools, they need to be trained properly, especially if they’re going to be dealing with “racially sensitive issues.”

That, in turn, leads to how schools discipline students. Task force members are urging schools, when possible, to avoid things like suspensions and even detentions.

“Except for situations in which someone is in danger of harm, harsh discipline policies that exclude students from academics are not effective in changing the individual student’s behavior,” the report states. More to the point, the report says, it can “lead to other students feeling unsafe.”

The report also says that any comprehensive school safety plan needs also to have students and others trained in what to do when things happen “even if those situations may never occur.”

“Age-appropriate safety drills and practices must be scheduled on a regular and ongoing basis,” the task force recommends.

There is a suggestion to form a school safety team of administrators, teachers, mental health professionals and security personnel. But the report says something else is needed – a threat assessment team.

That team has a “special mission” to determine whether a student who has threatened to harm others poses an actual danger of violence and, if necessary, put in place necessary measures to manage the situation.

There also are suggestions for regular tracking of discipline referrals, attendance, counselor visits and threats.

And if something does go wrong, the task force says there needs to be a critical response team that would identify people at risk and provide physical and emotional support.

“Once the crisis or threat is over, the people in the school must quickly return to as normal as possible,” the study says.

“Some people will recover before others,” it continues. “So mental health supports need to be in place for some weeks before a survivor might be ready to take on the responsibilities they previously had.”

One thing committee members are suggesting is establishing a “tip line.” It said a study earlier this year by the National Institute of Justice found that such tip lines had helped to prevent violent incidents.

“Most believed that tip line reports had helped them more effectively respond to bullying and had prevented incidents of self-harm,” the report states.

Still, there are risks.

The task force said there need to be parameters on everything from what kinds of information is appropriate, staffing and hours of operation to screening for biases. That includes questions of whether tips actually are based on someone’s racial or ethnic background.

And the report says there need to be partnerships with state and government agencies that can “respond appropriately.”

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