The State of Mississippi continues to permit local school districts to sanction the violent beating of children with large wooden paddles, extension cords and other weapons, and Mississippi leads the nation in abusing students in this manner. Furthermore, the state has enacted a fabric of statutes to insulate teachers and administrators from civil or criminal liability except in the most extreme cases. The state also permits school districts to suspend and expel students for any reason a local school districts in its discretion defines as necessary to the effective administration of the district. Many school districts push students out of school into the Youth Court or Juvenile Justice system to avoid having to work with the students who are having behavioral difficulties.
The Mississippi Department of Education issued regulations that require the use of a three-tier system that includes a teacher support team whenever any student has either academic or behavioral difficulties. But many districts ignore the duty to implement this process and thereby fail to provide this support system to the student.
Schools need to use research-based programs designed to provide the meaningful support students and teachers need to solve problems, rather than systematic punishment and exclusion of students as the primary response when students experience behavioral difficulties. Positive behavior intervention strategies, including teacher support teams and conflict resolution and peer mediation programs, build affirmative models for solving problems.
Rigid enforcement of punishment policies, including beating students and putting them out of school and onto the street, teach students counter-productive lessons and inappropriate models. For children this process undermines the sense of self, subverts native talents, denies critical thinking and dispute resolution tools needed to negotiate life in a complex society, and sets our children up for failure. Ultimately, this process has placed so many of our children in the pipeline from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse. This is not healthy!
We can’t have healthy communities without healthy people in them. In this way public schools play a pivotal role in preparing or failing to prepare children. Healthy schools contribute to building healthy communities. Unhealthy schools … well!
We can’t have healthy schools through which to build healthy communities without healthy educators and other school personnel, on the one hand, and healthy children, on the other. It will take more than good hearts and good will to create and sustain healthy schools that deliver a quality, first-class education to all students.
A healthy school should provide an atmosphere of high expectation and meaningful strategies for the effective development of the physical, social, emotional, mental and spiritual needs of each child. Schools need to embrace an analytical approach that is rooted in respect for the individuality of each child, and the parents or guardians of each child, all as members of the school family.
State accountability laws and regulations, federal Title I and federal No Child Left Behind require that every child be considered as an individual, especially where a wide variety of factors may indicate that the child is “at risk”. Toward this end, public schools must abandon the negative customs and practices that stereotype children, especially children of color and low-wealth, as difficult, disruptive, dangerous and expendable. There is no room for the contempt, disrespect and distrust that some educators exhibit toward parents, students and community. A healthy schools program must necessarily come to grips with this phenomenon. It is a dilemma that cannot be ignored because it is the problem, in our experience, that is most often brought to the fore by parents and students when they discuss issues that arise inside the schools. These kinds of experiences undermine respect for the education process within the families, and families comprise the core of any community.
In Mississippi we are proposing to establish an Office of Positive Behavior Intervention under the Mississippi Department of Education Office of Healthy Schools. The goal of this office would be to coordinate a system of care for students, from a holistic view of their needs and interests, in order to create an enhanced student-learning environment. Through this lens it would be necessary to consider the educational, social, emotional, mental and physical environments in which students function. It will also be necessary to address the needs of parents, teachers and administrators, who are integrally involved in the education and growth of our children.
The work of this Office would be to take an inter-disciplinary approach to training, consultation, direct services and professional referrals in support of the diverse needs of students, parents, teachers, and administrators. Rather than operate on largely separate, parallel turfs in a relatively uncoordinated manner, the strategy would be to bring together the relevant professional disciplines — school psychologists, social workers, mental health therapists and health services (including school nurses), child nutritionists and school counselors — to pool their strengths and resources under the umbrella of a healthy schools team. At the outset the Office of Positive Behavior Intervention would need to determine which services can be coordinated on an inter-disciplinary basis and which services would more appropriately remain outside the coordinated process of the healthy schools team.
Healthy schools teams would also need to use their special perspective to address the issues of suspension and expulsion of students. Rather than maximizing the amount of time that students can be put out of school and out of the learning process, healthy schools need to have research-based alternative strategies that keep children in school, and that enable them to function in school more effectively. As part of this process, students, parents, teachers and administrators would need a process through which they can acquire effective conflict resolution skills. In addition, there is a heightened necessity to use these strategies in Mississippi’s Alternative Schools, where by definition the children are at risk by virtue of their assignment away from the mainstream.
The availability of this kind of process should not depend on which local school district a child attends. Under this plan every local school district would be required to employ either a school psychologist, social worker, mental health therapist or school counselor, who would have a Masters-level degree or equivalent, to coordinate these activities at the school district level. This district-level employee would be responsible for the implementation of the healthy school goals in each of the school buildings that are served by the school district.
The development of statewide goals and standards would not seek to impose a singular healthy school strategy for every local school district. Rather, the goal would be to lift up and support local initiatives to adopt already proven research-based practices, or to create new strategies rooted in research-based analyses, as the means through which to meet the underlying goals and standards. For example, a local school district could elect to adopt such heretofore-successful research-based practices as Dr. James Comer’s “child development model”, or the “responsive classroom model”, or the “positive behavior intervention support” process.
It will be important for the healthy schools teams to utilize research-based practices to ensure that there is documented evidence of success when these practices have been employed. In order to ensure that research-based practices are used by healthy schools teams and the local school districts served, a Mississippi-based university should monitor and evaluate the impact of the work of the healthy schools team and report the findings to the Office of Positive Behavior Intervention.