February 2013 School Board News

Safe From Harm

Newtown -- The aftermath

Rick Kaufman vividly recalls that day in May 1999.

“I close my eyes and get transported back 13 years ago,” said Kaufman, who was the communications director for Colorado’s Jefferson County School District when the Columbine High School shootings occurred. “It was a horrific experience to go through, much less see it happen again.”

“Again” was on Dec. 14, when 20 children -- ages 6 and 7 -- and six adults died at the hands of a mentally disturbed 20-year-old armed with an assault rifle and two handguns. The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was the deadliest mass killing at a K-12 public school since a 1927 bombing in Bath, Mich.

The Sandy Hook slayings have ignited debates about school safety, gun control, and mental health issues that likely will linger for years. For school board members and administrators, the attack on an elementary school campus unleashes fears and a desire to do something -- anything -- that will ensure students are safe.

But -- surprising as this seemed to some in the wake of the shootings -- schools are safer than you might think. “It’s important for people to recognize schools are safe,” said Shamus O’Meara, an attorney with the Minneapolis law firm of Johnson Condon, Attorneys at Law P.A., who represented and advised two school districts following shootings. “These types of shooting incidents, while tragic, seldom occur.”

Since the Columbine shootings, security systems have been installed and visitor screenings have improved in schools. Many districts have hired school resource officers, adopted safe school plans, and provided training to staff.

Ronald D. Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in California and a consultant to districts that have dealt with school shootings, said context matters when you are talking about campus safety and how districts plan for emergencies.

“I have never seen a school shooting that has been so vicious, so heartless, so callous,” Stephens said. “I don’t know of a school district in America that is prepared to deal with assault-style attacks on their campuses.”

Providing support

When word arrived about the Sandy Hook shootings, staff at the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE) recognized the need to offer immediate support to that town’s school board. The association’s headquarters are only 50 miles from the school.

By the next morning, a crisis communications expert on contract with CABE was in Newtown to help school leaders with the media frenzy that descended on the district -- and to help provide whatever comfort and reassurances to a shocked and distraught community. CABE Executive Director Robert J. Rader said the consultant remained with the superintendent through most of the day after the shooting, and his staff also reached out to a neighboring district that was taking in students from Sandy Hook.

CABE also rushed to post a “Dealing with Tragedy” webpage that listed resources for school boards seeking guidance on how to talk to students and parents about the shootings, as well as tips for dealing with the media and reviewing school safety measures. The new webpage was posted by Sunday evening, about 48 hours after association officials first learned of the shootings.

“We wanted people to have this information before school started on Monday,” Rader said.

In days following the shootings, many state school boards associations found the most immediate need of local school leaders was to reassure the public that their community schools were safe -- and that sound security practices were in place in each school.

Mirroring CABE’s quick response, the Kentucky School Boards Association (KSBA) quickly posted a new webpage with a list of more than 50 online resources that school boards could access. “We sent [a notice of the list] to every superintendent, every school board member, every school communications person that we had emails for in the state,” said Brad Hughes, director of member support services director for KSBA.

The Massachusetts Association of School Committees also has made available information about school safety issues, says Michael Gilbert, a MASC field director who consults with school boards. He says much of the conversation he’s heard among school leaders has centered on what steps schools already have taken to improve school safety -- and the need to communicate that to the public.

One reason the state’s school officials are more confident in speaking to the public was that a new state mandate required an update of school security measures to include a first-response plan involving police, fire, and medical agencies, he says.

“Following Columbine, I watched the overreaction of many of our school boards to the immediacy of some of the information that came from that tragedy,” he says. For example, after some media accounts reported the shooters had worn trench coats, some school boards started banning these coats from schools.

“I’m not seeing that type of overreaction today,” Gilbert says. “I think our members are being much more thoughtful.”

Training, planning saves lives

One reason is because of safe school plans. No longer simply a vague document “sitting on a shelf,” the plans are working documents that address specific threats, including violence. Training for students and staff includes lockdown drills and routines that schools need to follow when emergencies occur.

It’s perhaps hard to imagine anything worse than what happened at Sandy Hook. Yet without the kind of training staff members received -- and the extraordinary degree of courage and composure they displayed -- the Dec. 14 shootings might have claimed even more lives.

“As horrific as the tragedy was in Newtown, it could have been much worse had the teachers, the staff, the principal, the administrators not followed the lockdown procedures they had been trained to follow, had they not actually taken the children and secluded them, really depriving the killer of further targets,” NSBA General Counsel Francisco M. Negrón said on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal. “So it was their training to basically ferret out the children -- keeping them safe, keeping them calm -- that made this a less horrific tragedy than it could have been, in terms of numbers.”

In the days after the shooting, Negrón also spoke on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” where he said that the recent shooting by an external gunman represented “a turning point” in the discussion of school safety. He said this should elicit discussions between district officials and law enforcement about how to deal with a shooter from outside the school community. After Columbine and other school shootings, districts focused on internal issues, such as school climate and bullying, and on identifying students with mental problems. This kind of effort, while essential, does not address a threat posed from outside.

Negrón told C-SPAN that moves to arm teachers and administrators, which have been suggested by Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell and others, are not the answer because school staff members are not routinely trained in law enforcement.

“Teachers and administrators are hired to teach our children,” Negrón said. “That’s a very different skill set [from law enforcement].”

Eric Sparks, assistant director of the American School Counselor Association, agrees.

“Having school staff with guns -- that would be a challenging situation in terms of training and school safety,” Sparks said. “And it takes a whole different angle on the possibility of things going wrong.”

Focus on recovery

One of the more positive responses to the Sandy Hook tragedy came a few days after the shootings when the Ohio School Boards Association was invited by state Attorney General Mike DeWine to participate in a new initiative to review school safety. OSBA has developed a new school safety consulting program, led by the former head of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

Rick Lewis, OSBA’s executive director, said the program was garnering interest from school boards even before the December tragedy.

“I suspect this is going to create so many conversations,” he says. “So many people are going to be looking for answers and solutions.”

A week after the Sandy Hook shootings, O’Meara, the Minneapolis lawyer, and Kaufman spoke at a webinar sponsored by NSBA’s Council of School Attorneys. Both emphasized the need for board members and administrators to promote a positive school climate that is rooted in trust.

 “I believe in the full development of school climate that promotes dialogue and trust,” O’Meara said. “… The studies show that school violence is the result of bullying and isolation, or from the student involved, they weren’t getting the assistant that is needed. A welcoming school climate will check issues.”

Kaufman, whose office dealt with daily calls about Columbine for years after the initial barrage of media, says recovery from a tragedy can take years.

“The focus that I believe in a crisis should be the foundation of preparation, response and recovery,” says Kaufman, now director of community relations and emergency management for Minnesota’s Bloomington Public Schools. “Recovery is often overlooked. After crises, we often forget about the recovery.”

One issue that OSBA hopes will be part of the conversation is the need to expand mental health services -- for both students and community members, Lewis says. “We think that a key to school safety isn’t so much about coming up with more plans for school lockdowns and evacuations ... but rather to spend some time on prevention.”

State association officials say the repercussions of Sandy Hook will not be fully clear for some time. But many report a gratifying sense of camaraderie and mutual support among school boards across the nation. OSBA, for example, shared a message with CABE and the Newtown school board that an Ohio school board member -- whose district also had endured a school shooting -- was passing along her email and telephone number if she could help.

“It speaks volumes about the compassion that school board members have for one another,” Lewis says.

ASBJ staffers Kathleen Vail, Del Stover, Lawrence Hardy, and Glenn Cook contributed to this article.

Connecticut association responds to tragedy
By Robert Rader and Patrice McCarthy

School board members, superintendents, principals, teachers, and others who work on behalf of public education understand that the safety of children under their care is their first priority.

Many have children or grandchildren of their own. They see the faces of their own kids when they hear about events like what happened in Newtown, a small community in western Connecticut in December, in the middle of the holiday season.

The hurt affects everyone. But for educators who pride themselves on protecting their youngsters, the hurt is doubled. And when this horrible event occurred, the shock wave was felt around the world.

The Connecticut Association of Boards of Education knows this. We heard from Ray Newport, executive director of New Zealand’s school boards association. Executive directors and others from state associations across the country contacted us. Some, like California Executive Director Vernon Billy, offered to fly in people to help Newtown. Ohio’s Rick Lewis put us in touch with a board in his state that had gone through a school shooting.

Almost immediately, we got other wonderful offers and resources from NSBA and the Council of School Attorneys. Lawyers who have advised districts in similar tragic circumstances are providing ongoing consultation to Newtown and its attorneys. CABE, of course, reached out to the school board and the neighboring town that was willing to lend a vacant school for the Sandy Hook children. We offered any help we could provide.

Generally, a school boards association can do little to directly help. We can’t write a policy or provide a webinar to deal with such an immediate and emotional situation. We work with a communications firm in Connecticut and by early Saturday morning, the consultant was available for Newtown. This service provides districts with professional expertise, especially when the media floods into a district.

The next day, we asked Wilmarie Franchesi, our administrative assistant for labor relations, to put some of the documents we had received on our website as soon as possible. We knew people would have questions as schools across the state prepared to reopen that Monday. Our board chairs have an electronic forum and they were asking lots of questions of each other -- and of us.

Newtown is a rather well-to-do community and the town is used to helping others, not receiving help. But assistance has flooded in. Our job, in part, is to ensure that the support does not end when the media vans and cameras leave.

The story doesn’t end there. It is not just about Newtown, but about the outpouring of love, caring, and sharing that came from around the world and our NSBA friends. All understood on such a deep level what that small piece of little Connecticut was going through.

Their willingness to offer help, to send donations, to start thinking about how no town, no city, no state should have to go through this again leaves us with the hope that we are, as others have said, better than this. Our state legislators, school board members, superintendents, and others have renewed their commitment to use their positions as public servants to make a difference.

Tragic violence cannot be completely eliminated by the actions of our schools. It takes federal, state and local government working together to eliminate the threats that can be posed to those in our schools.

Sandy Hook will be remembered for the heroic actions of its staff, first responders and the warm embrace of its community. No children, no parents, and no educators should ever have to experience anything even remotely like this again.

Robert J. Rader is executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. Patrice McCarthy is CABE’s deputy director and general counsel.

Talk About It
Our monthly topics worth discussing

LAUSD teachers union victorious in evaluation conflict
A recent agreement reached between the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and the teachers union is being hailed as a major win for the union, since the agreement will limit the use of a value-added analysis in teacher evaluations in the district. Value-added assessments are trending in teacher evaluations, but are widely opposed by teachers unions who claim evaluations based on such assessments are neither fair nor accurate. The value-added analysis that LAUSD has agreed to discard is known as Academic Growth Over Time, an evaluation tool already in use in Florida, Illinois, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. The LAUSD and the teachers union agreed to base teacher evaluations on a mix of wide-ranging data, including results of high school exit exams, raw state test scores, district assessments, and other indicators such as rates for graduation, attendance, suspension, and course completion, reports the Los Angeles Times. Still to be hammered out is exactly how such diverse data will be used to evaluate teachers, and how big a part the data analysis will play in these evaluations. District officials are working on guidelines for principals now.

USDA loosens new regulations on school meals
The U.S. Depart­ment of Agriculture has decided to loosen -- at least temporarily -- some of the recently implemented regulations on school meals, in part because schools are having difficulty locating vendors who can sell them the new, smaller portion sizes for grains and meat or meat alternatives, says Reuters.com. Some schools also have existing inventory that does not gibe with the new guidelines, but must be consumed. Also difficult to ignore is the groundswell of student protest about the size of the new school meals, which a fair number of students seem to have found inadequate. A student-produced YouTube video, We Are Hungry, stars students faux-fainting from hunger in gym class and consoling one another over their lunch tray contents while wearing “I Heart Beef” and “Man Up” t-shirts, as the video soundtrack wails, “Tonight, we are hu-un-greee.” The video has been viewed more than 1 million times.

Is college for suckers?
The long-held dogma that a four-year degree is the only road to success is beginning to become a little dog-eared. In the face of outrageous college costs and rising student debt, participants in new groups such as UnCollege are determined to -- in their own nomenclature -- “hack” their education, preferring to pay only for what they really need, such as $10,000 for a technology boot camp where they can learn to write computer code in eight to 10 weeks, rather than $200,000 for a computer science degree. These students round out their educations in the massive open online courses (MOOCs) made available by elite universities, in collaborative learning groups they organize with friends, in volunteer work, and in travel, according to the New York Times. They may be on to something. While on average college graduates have lower unemployment rates, higher earnings, and better career prospects than nongraduates, 58 percent of borrowers whose student loans have become due have yet to receive their degree, the Wall Street Journal reports. This means that the majority of people taking on the debt of college never receive the earnings boost a degree confers, making it much more difficult for them to repay their loans, and to return to college and finish a degree later on.

Apps for preschoolers
By the time Nickelodeon’s preschool cable network Nick Jr. begins airing episodes of “Wallykazam” in 2014, preschoolers who own tablets or smart phones will already be quite familiar with the its main character, Wally, his miniature pet dragon, and his magic stick. “Wallykazam” will be the first major television show to be marketed as an app first, in late 2013, says the New York Times. Driving this event are the growth in preschoolers with mobile devices (27 percent in October -- up from 22 percent in April), a decline in television ownership (88 percent -- down from 95 percent in 2010), and costs. Nickelodeon’s educational apps only take six to eight months to create, and cost half as much as one television episode to produce.

Your Turn
Are you using tablets in your schools?

Reader Panel members are ahead of the curve in the use of mobile devices

First adopters? It’s hard to say. But when it comes to supporting the use of iPads and other electronic tablets in school -- and on school boards -- most ASBJ’s Reader Panel members are surely among the early ones. Nearly 86 percent said their districts are using tablets now, and another 9 percent said they’re planning to use them in the future.

Some comments:

• The board and some staff members use tablets to minimize the use of paper (no more hard copies of agenda packets) and facilitates the ability to change agenda items. Some schools and classrooms are using tablets as well as Smart Boards. Some are funded by the district, some by PTAs and other donations. So, unfortunately, there is an equity issue in regards to access at schools. There are efforts by the district to minimize the equity issue; however, with insufficient funding from the state, it's difficult. However, as a community we continue to be proactive in trying to address this. We are also looking at smart phones as complementing the use of tablets, as they are available to more students. -- Trish Spencer, board member, California

• Teachers are encouraging students to create movies, music, and public service announcements demonstrating content and technology proficiency. We observe that when students are offered choice and variety as to ways to demonstrate content mastery, ownership and engagement walk hand in hand. Mobile devices push the BYOD/ BYOT (Bring Your Own Device/Bring Your Own Tablet) movement in schools and districts to create policies and procedures that meet the expectations for learning while complying with safety. They challenge districts and schools to meet the demands of bandwidth and infrastructure to support seamless and robust accessibility. -- Jeanne Biddle, director of instructional technology, Kentucky

• We are currently using iPads for students needing communication assistance, and for our students with significant physical and cognitive needs. Ongoing professional development is in process to assist those staff members supporting these students. We are able to make use of these as a result of IDEA and ARRA funding. We are looking forward to additionally using the equipment for our early childhood program and, of course, for staff in professional development. -- Phil Pritzker, board member, Illinois

• Our supervisory union and our member schools are leading the way in this area in Vermont. Both of our high schools have one-to-one initiatives. Additionally, every student grades five to 12 in all of our schools has access to a tablet or Netbook. We have found that technology engages students, and when used to enhance instruction, it serves as a great tool to foster student learning. We believe that in this new ever-changing world, students need to learn numeracy, literacy, critical thinking, and problem solving, and they also must be digitally literate. -- Jay Nichols, superintendent, Vermont

• Our students in grades two to four are using iPads, and our students in kindergarten and first grade are using iPod Touches (just a smaller version of an iPad). These devices have been an excellent addition to the classroom that better engages students in their learning and has provided a multitude of alternative learning avenues by using apps. These apps allow all students to experience success and better develop their academic and 21st century skills through leveled apps. In addition, they have enhanced the students' digital citizenship and collaboration skills. Through the use of Big Universe, our students are reading more and reading more complex materials that personally interest the student. -- Ann Linson, superintendent, Indiana

• Our speech pathologist uses an iPad2 for therapies with some students. Some of our elementary classrooms have sets of iPod Touches for use in reading and math programs. One of our middle schools uses Kindles for reading intervention programs. -- Sally Killen, board member, Oregon

In an effort to be more timely, the Reader Panel question and comments will now appear in the same issue of ASBJ, often accompanied by a cover package or other story on that topic. Want to get in on the discussion? Join ASBJ’s Reader Panel by going to www.asbj.com/readerpanel.