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Special Educators Responding to the Newtown Tragedy

Stephanie Ward, President, Massachusetts Association of 766 Approved Private Schools

As members of maaps, Massachusetts Association of 766 Approved Private Schools, we have all been profoundly touched by the events of the Newtown school tragedy. We are educators dedicated to serving the most vulnerable and impaired students in Massachusetts, students whose special needs are best addressed in our specialized settings. We have been and always will be acutely sensitive to the potential for victimization of a less-able student population and the stigmatization that interferes with their capacity for maximum achievement and happiness. They deserve our best support and highly advanced and effective, academic and social interventions.

How do we comprehend the incident at Newtown and translate its impact into meaningful action for our schools?

In 2002, the Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education (DOE) provided guidance for schools and communities to reduce the potential for future tragedies, in a publication: Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates. Ten years later, their reports provide [pullquote position=”right”]The classic “one trusted adult” to be present for every child in school remains imperative.[/pullquote]sound guidance for policy and practice. Creation of a safe school environment, a “[tooltip title=”Culture of Respect”] Threat Assessment in Schools; p. 11 [/tooltip] ” resonates with the principles of such models as the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a U.S DOE supported school-wide model for mutual respect and community service; as well as the emphasis on a positive connection between adults and students. The classic “one trusted adult” to be present for every child in school remains imperative. Certainly the students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School gave monumental evidence of their commitment to and caring for each other, experiences that hopefully will give some solace as they move forward and comfort the memories of those left behind, whose heroism lives on.

A school with a culture of respect and trusted adults works actively to remain connected to students, breaking the code of silence and addressing bullying. Adults do not bully the students and students do not bully each other. The skills of conflict resolution, non-violent problem solving, peer mediation, taught and reinforced, support the safe school climate. Massachusetts has addressed bullying through recently distributed Department of Elementary and Secondary Education mandates and resources, available to all educators and parents.

Massachusetts Comprehensive System – Chapter 766

Perhaps unique to Massachusetts is a comprehensive system of educational intervention, starting with early child intervention programs and continuing with the specialized services provided under Chapter 766. This groundbreaking law, now being celebrated in its 40th year, guaranteed all children the right to an education, regardless of disability. The law which became a model for federal law two years later, ensured that all children with special needs were to be educated to reach their maximum potential. Today a continuum of academic and social supports is available to assist students, ranging from inclusion supports to specialized classrooms, to the intensive and specific expertise of the maaps member schools.

Additionally, in Massachusetts, there are active statewide efforts to reach and address the mental health needs of children early in life. As in all states, funding and outreach can always be expanded, but the recently enacted multi-agency CBHI initiative (Children’s Behavioral Health Initiative) was developed to ensure that a far more accessible network existed; that early screening and effective treatment for children with emotional, social, and/or mental health concerns is now more readily available to all families.

It is too early to know if the legacy of success of these initiatives will lead to the elimination of acts of such senseless violence in our future. We can continue to evaluate these efforts and initiatives, ensuring that they do indeed address the needs of all identified children and their families; that schools have access to resources for their students; that the students who need the support of a more specialized setting and instructional approach, can do so to achieve their potential, and reach a level of life satisfaction that prevents any thought of retaliation or rage-induced actions. Limiting the availability of assault weapons that expand the potential for victims, as a first step in making guns less readily available as a means of expressing one’s rage, appears a logical, overdue, and necessary adjunct to any mental health, academic, community and family support initiatives. To do nothing different in the face of such a tragedy as we have just endured, is simply not an option. We all have a voice and our collective efforts must be focused on preventing the possibility of future pain to our schools, our staff, our families, and most passionately, to our children.

References:

1. Fein, R., Vossekuil, B., Pollack, W., Borum, R., Modzeleski, W., & Reddy. M. Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide To Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program and U.S. Secret Service, National Threat Assessment Center, Washington, D.C., 2002.
2. Vossekuil,B., Fein, R., Reddy, M., & Modzeleski, W., The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program and U.S. Secret Service, National Threat Assessment Center, Washington, D.C., 2002.