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How Do We Make Schools Safer?

By Natalie Chap and Liz Sullivan – April 2, 2013

In the wake of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, communities, advocates, and policymakers across the country are proposing and already implementing different ways to address gun violence in our society—such as passing new gun-control measures and improving mental-health services in our communities. As a part of these efforts, the question has been raised, how do we make schools safer? Our nation’s top researchers on school safety, as well as the youth, parents, educators, and advocates who experience and work to improve school safety every day, are clear that the most effective way of creating a safe school community is by improving the sense of connectedness and communication between students, school staff, families, and communities. See Interdisciplinary Group on Preventing School and Community Violence, December 2012 Connecticut School Shooting Position Statement (Dec. 19, 2012); Dignity in Schools Campaign, Statement on Sandy Hook Elementary (Dec. 21, 2012). Evidence-based practices, like positive behavior supports, social and emotional learning, and restorative practices, all help to improve trust and connectedness and have been shown to reduce disruption and violence in schools, while improving educational outcomes. See Dignity in Schools Campaign, Fact Sheet: Creating Positive School Discipline.

Yet, in recent months, some groups have called for arming more police officers or other staff in schools, and state legislatures and local school boards are introducing laws and policies that will increase the number of school resource officers (SROs) and other law enforcement personnel, along with the use of zero-tolerance practices. See Dignity in Schools Campaign, “Coalition Says Armed Police in Schools Wrong Answer for Stopping Gun Violence” (Jan. 11, 2013). Although police officers and metal detectors may create the appearance of safety for some, research studies and experiences have shown that these policing tactics, instead, have a serious detrimental impact on school communities. The American Psychological Association and others have found that these practices do not improve student behavior and that they drag down academic achievement, breed distrust in the school community, and result in the criminalization of youth—particularly youth of color—for minor misbehavior, like “disrespect.”  Am. Psychol. Ass’n Zero Tolerance Task Force, “Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations,” 63 Am. Psychologist 852 (Dec. 2008).

Since the 1990s, schools around the country have already invested heavily in security measures, such as metal detectors, armed police officers, and SROs, along with zero-tolerance discipline policies that employ suspensions and expulsions. These punitive and excessive policies have increased the time students spend out of school and increased arrests and referrals to the justice system, contributing to increased racial disparity in school exclusion and educational outcomes. Each year, according to the Department of Education, over 3 million students are suspended and over 100,000 are expelled, double the suspension rate of the 1970s. See Dignity in Schools Campaign, Pathways to Pushout. Black students are more than three times as likely to be suspended than white students and are more likely to be punished more severely for minor misbehaviors. See Dignity in Schools Campaign, Who’s Getting Pushed Out? These practices undermine the trust and supportive relationships between students and adults in a school building, and divert much needed resources away from funding counselors, social workers, and mental-health professionals in schools.

In response to these ineffective and harmful policies, communities across the country have been pushing back against zero-tolerance discipline policies and over-policing in our schools. The national Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC), a coalition of over 60 organizations from 20 states, was formed to advocate against the policies and practices that push young people out of school and to demand positive approaches to school climate and discipline that keep students in school and ensure their human right to education and to be treated with dignity.

Just a few months before the Sandy Hook shooting, in August 2012, the DSC released A Model Code on Education and Dignity: A Human Rights Framework for Schools. The Model Code articulates a vision for our schools based on the best practices, research, and experiences of communities, educators, experts, and advocates around the country. It is also based on a human- rights framework for schools that recognizes that the goal of education must be to support all children and young people in reaching their full potential. Based on that vision, the Model Code provides a set of recommended policies that schools, districts, and states can adopt to stem the tide pushing students out of school and end the school-to-prison pipeline. The Model Code can be used as a tool for communities and advocates to push back against the calls for more police in schools in the wake of Sandy Hook, and to support other local efforts to change school policy and practice. Below is a summary of the Model Code and examples of how advocates and communities can use it to support positive change.

The Vision Behind the Model Code
The recommended language captured in the Model Code reflects a unique combination of research and best practices identified by students, parents, educators, and advocates across the country who have been fighting for truly safe and successful school environments, and working to change education policy in their local communities. The first draft of the Model Code, circulated for comment in 2009, was developed by members of the Model Code Working Group from the DSC, the Children’s Rights Litigation Committee (CRLC) of the American Bar Association Section of Litigation, and various other individuals and organizations that contributed to the project. Members of the Model Code Working Group reviewed drafts of the code on monthly calls, and they gathered input at DSC meetings and at a summit organized by the CRLC. In 2011, the DSC launched a community-engagement process to gather input from eight states around the country—California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, and Pennsylvania—bringing together students, parents, and educators to review the draft of the Model Code and provide comments and input.

The result of this multiyear effort is a Model Code that articulates the problem as “school pushout” and frames the solution within a holistic human-rights vision for education and dignity.

“School pushout” refers to the policies and practices that prevent or discourage young people from remaining on track to complete their education. It is fueled by many factors including unwelcoming school environments, low expectations for students, zero-tolerance discipline policies and practices, school policing and other punitive disciplinary measures, lack of adequate resources and support for teachers, high-stakes testing, and narrow curricula. Many school systems use a top-down approach that often results in policies and practices that fail to address all of the needs of school communities. Youth, parents, and educators are often shut out of important educational decisions. Youth of color, English-language learners, students with disabilities, low-income families, and other marginalized communities are disproportionately impacted by these policies and practices, resulting in increasing numbers of these youth being pushed out of school and into poverty, unemployment, and, often, prison.

The solution, framed through a human-rights approach, envisions an educational system where schools adapt to meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of every student, where students, parents, teachers, and other members of the school community participate in decisions affecting education, where all students are treated with dignity and attend school free from discrimination of any kind, and where communities play a central role in monitoring education policies and practices to continuously improve educational outcomes for students. In adopting a human-rights approach to education, we aim to respect the rights and needs of the individuals who study in, work in, and support our schools.

In developing the Model Code, communities looked to principles and standards for education set out in human-rights documents, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These documents are grounded in the history of struggles to end oppression, combat racism, and achieve civil rights—struggles that we still face in our school system. The human-rights vision that emerged from these struggles can help shape a positive message for combating school pushout that shifts practices away from punishing and excluding children to creating policies that protect human rights and meet students’ needs.

A Summary of the Model Code
The Model Code is organized into five chapters: (1) Education, (2) Participation, (3) Dignity, (4) Freedom from Discrimination, and (5) Data, Monitoring and Accountability. Chapter 3, on dignity, is the centerpiece of the code and is focused on transforming our school systems’ approach to discipline to end the exclusion and criminalization of youth and create safe and supportive learning environments. Earlier chapters on education and participation outline broader principles and standards for high-quality education and community participation that lay the groundwork for positive school climates and discipline. The later chapters on discrimination and on monitoring and accountability describe recommended policies and practices for addressing the disproportionate impact of punitive discipline, ensuring quality data collection and monitoring implementation.

The Model Code presents policy recommendations in concrete, prescriptive language that is in the form of procedures, criteria, and standards, and that is practical and meaningful to states, districts, schools, educators, students, parents, and advocates. The sections of the Model Code are designed so that anyone can identify individual topic areas and choose to use the recommended language in efforts to change local policies and practices (even if it is just one case at a time), while taking into account the diverse needs and characteristics of individual communities.

Included in the Model Code are areas of law and policy that break new ground. These innovative recommendations— such as in the areas of the right to counsel, the right to specific procedures and protections in school suspension and expulsion hearings, clear guidelines on the role of law enforcement, substance abuse prevention in schools, and the right to participation of all stakeholders—are set forth as recommended language to advance the code’s overall goal of protecting children’s human right to education.

The Model Code also provides detailed implementation guidelines for school-wide discipline models that have been studied and demonstrated to work, such as Restorative Practices and School-Wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (SWPBIS). These approaches give teachers and students the tools to build positive school environments and to prevent and respond to conflict in ways that address students’ social, emotional, and academic needs. When implemented, these interventions can reduce suspensions by up to 50 percent, improve school climate, increase teacher effectiveness, and support better educational outcomes for all students. See Dignity in Schools Campaign, Fact Sheet: Creating Positive School Discipline.

A Tool for Change
The Dignity in Schools Campaign is working to support communities, educators, advocates, and policymakers around the country in using the Model Code as a tool for change. For advocacy work, anyone can compare the recommended language in the Model Code to current policies and practices in their states and districts and use the code to craft policy and programming demands. Educators and administrators can use the code to examine their own classroom and school-wide practices and implement new approaches to discipline and climate. District and state policymakers can use the code to help shape language for laws and regulations, as well as guidelines for how to implement and monitor policies. Child advocates and service providers can use the code to think of new solutions to some of the constant challenges they face; negotiate or make specific requests to courts, school districts, or other third parties on behalf of their clients; and empower the youth and families they serve.

Members of the DSC around the country are already using the Model Code in their work. In Los Angeles, members of the DSC-Los Angeles Chapter, including Community Asset Development Re-defining Education (CADRE), Labor/Community Strategy Center, Public Counsel Law Center, and Youth Justice Coalition, are holding workshops on the Model Code in neighborhoods across Los Angeles and surrounding cities. They are engaging parents, students, educators, social service providers, advocates, and school district officials in conversations about the Model Code to reduce suspensions and policing and to improve implementation of district-wide positive discipline approaches, like SWPBIS. In Sacramento, Restorative Schools Vision Project is integrating the Model Code into its teacher trainings, community workshops, and education advocacy on restorative practices and social emotional learning. Members of the Mississippi Delta Catalyst Roundtable developed their own state-level Model Student and Parent Handbook and are now working with communities throughout the Mississippi Delta to align local student handbooks to both the state model they developed and the DSC Model Code. In Louisiana, Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children is sharing the Model Code with state legislators and local district officials to support ongoing campaigns to reform state and local codes of conduct.

Advocates around the country, attorneys, even prosecutors, can turn to the code for guidance, research, and examples of programs that decrease recidivism and that focus on community-based alternatives to incarceration, suspension, expulsion, and other forms of punishment. The code serves as a resource for anyone who seeks to better or change their policies, programs, or representation.

Model Code as a Response to Calls for Increased Police Presence
In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, as many local communities are pushing back against calls for more police in schools, the Model Code sets out recommended language for policies that would reduce the presence of police and place clear limits on their role in schools.

You can find recommended language on school policing in section 3.2 of the code, Avoiding Criminalization in School Discipline. Highlights from that section include recommended language for how states and districts can accomplish the following:

Take steps to reduce their reliance on SROs, police, and security officers, including:

  • Shifting resources to replace SROs and police with community intervention workers, counselors, social workers, psychologists, and other support staff.
  • Requiring that SROs assigned to schools are not employed, trained, or supervised by police departments, but instead employed and supervised by the local educational agency (for example, the school board or department of education).
  • Ensuring that districts are implementing other interventions and programs, such as SWPBIS and restorative practices that aim to address root causes of student behaviors and provide needed services.

  • Adopt clear and consistent rules of governance that recognize the school principal as the primary authority responsible for school safety and limit the role of law enforcement in schools, including:

    •  Articulating the types of incidents that will be considered school discipline issues to be handled by school personnel and not by SROs, police, security officers, or other law enforcement, including disorderly conduct; trespassing; profanity; insubordination/defiance; verbal abuse and/or harassment; vandalism and/or graffiti; failure to follow school uniform rules; possession of a prohibited item that does not violate the law (for example, cell phones); being late, cutting class, absenteeism, or truancy; fighting that does not involve a weapon; and other minor behaviors.

    Place clear limits on arrests or searches of students, including provisions that state that:

    • Students shall be arrested at school only when there is a finding of probable cause that a student has committed or is attempting to commit a serious crime—not a school-discipline matter.
    • An SRO or police officer shall not conduct an arrest without first consulting the principal, and that school officials shall immediately contact the students’ parents or guardians when a student is arrested.

    Put transparency and accountability mechanisms in place for the role of law enforcement in schools, including:

    • Creating a clear, transparent, and independent civilian complaint process for students, parents, guardians, families, teachers, and administrators to file complaints against any SRO or other law-enforcement personnel in schools.

    Require quality training of any SROs and other law-enforcement who come into contact with schools, including:

    • Ensuring decisions on training are developed with students, parents or guardians, teachers, school administrators, and other stakeholders.
    • Requiring every SRO and police officer to receive at least 60 hours of training before being assigned to schools and at least 10 hours of annual professional development in such topics as bias-based and sexual harassment; child and adolescent development and psychology; conflict resolution and peer mediation; working with youth with disabilities; cultural competencies; the impacts of arrest, court, detention, incarceration, and deportation on life chances; effective strategies for building safe schools without relying on suppression; and restorative practices and other programs being used in the district.

    Collect data on interactions with police and SROs, including arrests, referrals to courts, and other categories listed in the Model Code, and disaggregate the data by age, race and ethnicity, gender, income, and other categories listed in the Model Code.

    What Can You Do?
    Here is how you can get involved:

    • Join an upcoming webinar on the Model Code. In 2012, the DSC held the first in a series of webinars on the Model Code attended by advocates, parents, students, school personnel, school district officials, and representatives of the federal Department of Education. You can download the slides from the first two webinars at http://www.dignityinschools.org/webinars-model-code-education-dignity, which include an overall introduction to the Model Code and a review of the section on school exclusion and due process, including the right to counsel. Contact info@dignityinschools.org for more information on upcoming webinars in 2013 on school policing, data and monitoring, restorative practices, school-wide positive behavior supports, and guidelines for alternative schools.

    • Host a Model Code training or presentation in your community. The DSC can help you organize a training or presentation on the Model Code for policymakers, school staff, students, parents, or advocates. The DSC has developed a Community Toolkit, which contains resources that anyone can use to support changes to their school and district policies, such as interactive activities for comparing your Student Code of Conduct to the Model Code, and links to resources to help in getting the Model Code implemented. Contact info@dignityinschools.org for more information.

    • Provide your input to improve the Model Code. The Model Code is a living document that we will work to continuously update and improve. You can help us! Share your tips, experiences, and ideas—what you have seen that works and does not work—so that it can be part of the Model Code and the materials we are putting together to support it. Contact info@dignityinschools.org and join a Model Code Working Group call.

    • Get involved locally and partner with others in your community. Find out what is going on in your state and at your local level and get involved. Go ahead and reach out to different stakeholders to see how you can work together and support the work of parents, youth, educators, and communities to change school environments. You may think that you do not have much to offer, but you may be surprised how your research, relationship building, advocacy, Freedom of Information Act, speaking, or testifying skills may be extremely helpful when shared with others. You may find it highly rewarding in many ways to center part of your work (whether paid or pro bono) around a specific geographic or school community. If you want more information on how to do this and where to start, please contact Cathy Krebs at cathy.krebs@americanbar.org or the DSC at info@dignityinschools.org.

    • Download the Model Code and use it in your practice. You can easily access the full code and the executive summary at www.dignityinschools.org/our-work/model-school-code. Keep it on your desktop or on your phone and search for specific issues, practices, recommendations, resources, and research, whenever you need it, whether it is when you are advocating at a sentencing hearing for a young person or representing a school district on a matter.

    • Lend your voice to current advocacy efforts:

    About the Dignity in Schools Campaign
    The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) challenges the systemic problem of pushout in our nation’s schools and advocates for the human right of every young person to a quality education and to be treated with dignity. The DSC started over five years ago when local grassroots and advocacy groups fighting to end school pushout came together to share information and strategies and build a common framework for dignity and human rights in our schools. The DSC has now grown into a multi-stakeholder coalition made up of youth, parents, educators, grassroots groups, and policy and legal advocacy groups, which strives to ensure that those most affected by the education system and school pushout are at the center of our work and leadership structures. The DSC’s membership is structured to create a space for all both to contribute to the work and to benefit from the collective advancements of the coalition and local successes of its members.

    Keywords: litigation, children’s rights, Model Code, school pushout, criminalization, juvenile justice, school resource officers, zero tolerance, Dignity in Schools Campaign

    Natalie Chap is coordinator of the Dignity in Schools Campaign and Liz Sullivan is a member of the Dignity in School Campaign Coordinating Committee and director of the Human Right to Education Program at the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative in New York, New York.

    Copyright © 2016, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).