A New Year’s resolution for Georgia: Keep schools and students safe

Two legal advocates say Georgia has an opportunity to choose a 2019 New Year’s resolution that would benefit everyone in the state —keeping schools and students safe and healthy.

Two legal advocates say Georgia has an opportunity to choose a 2019 New Year’s resolution that would benefit everyone in the state —keeping schools and students safe and healthy.

In this guest column, attorneys Talley Wells, executive director of Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, and Michael Waller, director of projects for the organization, discuss how to keep students safe.

Last year, Georgia House and Senate Study Committees on School Safety released recommendations to prevent school shootings, including increasing children’s mental health counseling. Wells and Waller predict school safety will be an important issue in the 2019 legislative session that commences next week.

By Talley Wells and Michael Waller

What are the three things you need for a successful New Year’s Resolution? A resolution that you really want to achieve, folks who will support you in achieving it, and past success to build on. If your resolution does not fit these three criteria, it is guaranteed to end in failure.

Georgia has an opportunity to choose a resolution that would benefit everyone in the state and meet all three criteria—keeping schools and school children safe and healthy. Politicians, professionals, parents, and students all want safer schools. And Georgia has seen smart school safety investments and innovations pay off over the last few years.

After the shooting at Parkland High School, Georgia’s House and Senate examined how to make our schools safer. They studied school safety, listened to law enforcement and educators, and looked toward successful school efforts across Georgia. Their committees issued recommendations at the end of 2018, including increased mental health counseling inside schools and improving overall school climate.

The House and Senate recommendations build on the successes of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities' Georgia Apex program and the Georgia Department of Education's statewide school climate work.

Georgia Apex currently brings mental health counselors into approximately 14 percent of Georgia schools. Growing the Apex program, as the House specifically recommends in its report, would bring mental health providers to the children that need them.

Plus, Georgia Apex would not bust the budget. In Apex schools, the state provides modest funding for the mental health services in schools. When possible, these providers bill the students’ insurance. Apex isn’t free, but it is sustainable, and the benefits to children’s health and safety far outweigh the costs.

The House Committee also recommends improving school climate statewide to increase school safety. School climate is the overall atmosphere and operation of schools, beyond just the academics. Dr. Garry McGiboney, at the Georgia Department of Education, defines the key components of school climate as: physical and emotional safety, social support through teacher and student relationships, positive and professional teaching and learning, and a welcoming, clean and safe physical environment.

In other words—Does the school feel safe? Do students and teachers feel supported? Does the condition of school facilities or discipline issues distract students from learning? When school climate improves, schools are transformed for the better—and students learn and behave better.

Every public school in the state has a climate star rating, which you can find on the DOE's website.

The House recommends that all Georgia schools adopt Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a nationally recognized evidence-based practice, as the chief school climate improvement strategy. This recommendation builds on a strong foundation—50 percent of Georgia's schools already use Tier 1 PBIS to make schools healthier and safer and provide positive supports to all children. Tiers 2 and 3 of PBIS target interventions for at-risk kids. For schools that follow Tier 1 faithfully, office disciplinary referrals are down 44 percent and out of school suspension days are down 34 percent since 2014.

For example, Bibb County went all in on PBIS and school climate over the last five years. Every school is now a Tier 1 PBIS school. In the last year, out of school suspension days dropped 26 percent. The results have been so impressive that over 200 educators from across the state came to tour what the district is doing.

You can see your local school's out of school suspension rates for the last 10 years here.

PBIS at Apex schools is particularly powerful—kids with mental health impairments can get the help they need at a school that supports and cares for the child. According to national statistics, approximately one in five teens has a mental health disorder, and more than half of children over twelve have had an adverse childhood experience that may have a lasting impact on their health and mental health. Fortunately, strategies like PBIS and Apex can help these children where and when they need it.

Would adopting Apex and PBIS statewide guarantee a tragedy like Parkland won’t happen? Maybe not. But they make a substantial impact. And they will continue the trend in Georgia of improving the health and safety of our schools, our communities, and our children. That is a 2019 resolution worth keeping.