Federal school safety commission makes first field visit

Representatives of the Federal Commission on School Safety, including its leader Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, visited a Maryland elementary school on Thursday to focus on a framework aimed at improving school climate.

The commission’s trip to Frank Hebron-Harman Elementary School — its first school visit since the commission was created earlier this year — focused on “positive behavioral interventions and supports,” or PBIS, a framework with the goal of improving school climate and student behavior across a wide range of outcomes like discipline and academics.

After visiting several classes at the elementary school, DeVos briefly acknowledged the reason the commission was formed: It was part of the Trump administration’s response to the deadly February shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead. She described the incident as a “terrible tragedy.”

“In the aftermath, students and educators alike understandably fear that this could happen in their own school. Parents dread getting a phone call that too many other parents have experienced,” she said, adding that the President instructed her agency and the others involved with the commission to “immediately work with states and schools to improve school security, expand access to mental health programs and increase investments in violence prevention programs.

“Today we’re looking at concrete examples of a school taking a holistic approach to foster a safe and supportive culture thanks, in part, to their implementation of positive behavioral interventions and supports,” DeVos said.

Education groups and advocates had been pushing the commission, which until now had met only behind closed doors, to spend time in the field talking with parents, teachers and advocates. Thursday’s field visit was also open to a group of reporters, the first time the media has had access to the commission’s work since its creation.

The PBIS framework is already in place in as many as 26,000 schools across the country and dates back to 1997, according to George Sugai, a leading researcher in the field who participated in the commission’s roundtable. He said the framework is that all students at a school are taught specific behavioral expectations and rewarded for following them. Students with greater needs are provided with increased intervention.

“All kids get what they need, but some kids need a little extra, and a few kids need something that’s a little more individualized,” Sugai said.

“Students who feel invested in their school community are less likely to harm it,” Kathy Rockefeller, the school climate specialist for Anne Arundel County Public Schools, said Thursday, adding that harm can mean a range of things from infractions like cheating, to fighting and beyond.

As the school safety commission met in Washington, Trump was traveling to Houston to meet with victims of the recent school shooting at Santa Fe High School, that left 10 people dead.

The commission has been one of the few concrete steps the administration has taken to address school shootings. After the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the President discussed proposals including arming teachers, stricter background checks and raising the minimum age for buying assault weapons, none of which have come to fruition.

Of the commission’s four principal members — all cabinet secretaries — DeVos was the only one present at Thursday’s meeting. Elinore McCance-Katz, the assistant secretary for mental health and substance use, represented HHS; Christopher Krebs, acting undersecretary for national protection, represented DHS; and Beth Williams, assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Policy represented the Department of Justice.

DeVos has said that the commission will deliver its findings and best practices by year’s end.