By Wayne D'Orio
It’s become a tragic cycle: A school shooting occurs, and the country is left debating what we can do to keep our schools safe. Yet no group has more of a stake in the debate than those on the frontlines of the tragedy: schools and teachers.
While schools wait for potential legislative policies to take effect, and for new building safety protocols to be put into place, they can begin to adopt programs that take on some of the root causes of violence: addressing the social and emotional issues that can cause perpetrators to lash out.
“All the locks and cameras, they matter, but not as much as making a school a kinder, more inclusive place,” says Christine Miller, a social skills counselor at Broadview Middle School in Danbury, Connecticut. Miller’s school has adopted programs developed by Sandy Hook Promise, an organization that formed in the wake of the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, where 20 students and six educators were killed.
Below we take a look at Miller’s school and two others that have worked to build positive and safe cultures by embracing social-emotional learning (SEL).
School: Broadview Middle School, Danbury, Connecticut
Program: Sandy Hook Promise’s Know the Signs
When Miller first learned her school was going to adopt a pair of programs from Sandy Hook Promise, she knew the decision made sense—Miller’s son was a fourth grader at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. He escaped the shooting without physical harm, but the event left her and her family “shaken to the core.” Miller feels strongly that SEL programs, which aim to get kids talking to and caring for one another—and alerting adults about students who might harm others or themselves—are a crucial piece in preventing future school violence.
Broadview, with 1,200 students, is three years into using the programs—Start With Hello and Say Something—and is already seeing results.
Start With Hello aims to end social isolation by getting students and staff to interact with one another more; a specific promise is to not let anyone eat lunch alone. “Just being part of the program has reduced the number of bullying incidents almost to zero,” says Sybil Brooks, the school’s assistant principal.
The second program, Say Something, teaches students how to recognize signs of at-risk behavior, especially on social media, and how to take action. It includes an app (Say Something Anonymous Reporting System) that kids can download free to report incidents. The organization has trained more than 2.5 million people nationwide to use the program and the app, in districts from Los Angeles to Miami-Dade. When a Broadview student mentioned suicide on Instagram, Miller says, officials were at her house within 30 minutes, after multiple students reported the post. “Kids are on social media that we are not on,” Miller says.
“These are simple programs that teach kids to care about each other and talk about problems,” says Miller. And as she found, educators love them, too. “These programs are empowering. Personally, professionally, they have given us some power…. It has healed me.”
School: Lincoln High School, Walla Walla, Washington
Approach: Trauma-Informed Schools
When he first became principal of Lincoln High School, an alternative school, Jim Sporleder thought that being a tough disciplinarian was the best approach. “I liked working with the toughest kids,” he says. “My belief [was] that it was a student choice to misbehave. I felt discipline was a teaching tool. I used out-of-school suspensions to teach kids.”
His attitude changed when he saw a keynote speech from Brain Rules author John Medina, who talked about how trauma can affect children and make it nearly impossible for them to learn. “It turned me upside down,” Sporleder remembers. “I thought my discipline was very fair, but I was punishing them.” A short time later, Lincoln, a school whose student body included gang members and students with drug addictions, became the first school in the nation to adopt the trauma-informed model during its 2010-11 school year.
Today, both Massachusetts and Washington state, as well as numerous districts and schools, have comprehensive trauma-informed policies in place. Being a trauma-informed school means understanding the trauma some students face and how it might cause them to act out. Schools set clear expectations for children and develop strategies to help them work through problems.
At Lincoln, when a student was identified as dealing with a recent traumatic incident, Sporleder says two staff members checked in with the student every day, in the morning and in the afternoon, to let the child know an adult cared about them.
At Lincoln, suspensions eventually were reduced by 85 percent, and student achievement now outranks the state average. Sporleder’s work there was the inspiration for the documentary Paper Tigers. (After he left Lincoln, Sporleder coauthored The Trauma-Informed School: A Step-by-Step Implementation Guide for Administrators and School Personnel, and he now works as a trainer with the Community Resilience Initiative, where he helps officials create trauma-informed schools.)
“It’s not just what we do,” Sporleder says of the model. “It’s who we are. If your umbrella is trauma-informed, anything beneath it is that much better.”
School: McMicken Heights Elementary School, SeaTac, Washington
Program: Yale University’s RULER
In 2012-13, Highline Public Schools, a district of 19,000 students just south of Seattle, had a disproportionate number of out-of-school suspensions. When Superintendent Susan Enfield took over in 2012, she overhauled the district’s discipline policy and implemented RULER, an SEL curriculum created at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, in every elementary and middle school. The goal was to reduce future problems by helping students understand and learn to control their feelings.
One of those schools is McMicken Heights Elementary School. Under RULER, students use tools to understand and regulate their own emotions and to empathize with classmates. Each classroom has a daily morning meeting where students greet one another and ask and answer questions from classmates. A “mood meter” helps even the youngest students express what they are feeling; they place their mood within four colored squares: Mad, Sad, Calm, and Happy.
“Social-emotional learning needs to start as early as possible,” says Principal Alexandria Haas. “We can’t wait until social issues arise in secondary schools.”
Now in its third year at McMicken Heights, the program has helped the school reduce office referrals from 91 in 2014 to 52 in 2016. McMicken recently teamed with the Center for Educational Effectiveness to complete a study of the program’s effectiveness. Its findings showed students were comfortable interacting with people of different backgrounds, that they respected others’ points of view even if they didn’t agree, and that they were able to discuss a problem with friends without making it worse.
“Who can argue that adults as well as children would not benefit highly from these skills?” Haas asks.