HANOVER, Md. (AP) — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos bumped fists with first-graders and listened as they shared stories about friendship during a field trip Thursday by a presidential commission seeking ways to stem a steady stream of school violence.
DeVos toured Hebron Harman Elementary School in Hanover, Maryland, which specializes in positive behavior reinforcement, an approach focused on mentoring and counseling as opposed to punitive discipline.
The field trip was held on the same day that President Donald Trump traveled to Texas to meet with families of some of the 10 people killed in a May 18 shooting at Santa Fe High School.
DeVos chairs the Federal Commission on School Safety, which was formed after the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 people dead. Besides DeVos, the panel consists of the attorney general and the heads of the departments of Human Services and Homeland Security. During Thursday’s visit the three agencies were represented by senior officials, not the secretaries.
The Trump administration has faced criticism for not including any Democrats, educators or experts as full-fledged members of the safety commission.
DeVos listened to teachers, principals and experts share various approaches to making their schools welcoming and safe for students. DeVos said she understands the anxiety many parents and teachers feel after the Florida tragedy.
“In the aftermath, students and educators alike understandably fear that this could happen in their own school,” she said. “Parents dread getting a phone call that too many other parents have experienced.”
DeVos sat down on the carpet with children during a first grade’s morning meeting as students shared stories of how their friends helped them overcome difficult situations and feel better. In another classroom, she assisted a girl in reading a book about Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child who attended an all-white school in Louisiana during the segregation era. DeVos then joined another class where children were writing essays about the things they wanted to invent. One girl told DeVos about making a special pencil sharpener.
The school safety commission was formed in March and tasked with outlining strategies for improving school security and students’ access to mental health care and curbing gun violence.
But the discussion on Thursday was focused solely on positive behavior interventions, a pedagogical approach that essentially aims to make students kinder and happier at school and prevent disruptive behavior before it starts. The approach is not new and is already being used widely throughout the nation.
Educators talked about making misbehaving students come to school for additional work on Saturdays instead of giving them suspensions, connecting students with psychologists or other adults at the school or letting children correct the harm they made instead of facing punishment.
The topic of gun control was not discussed.
George Sugai, an education professor at the University of Connecticut, who pioneered the positive behavior approach, said it helps avoid or lessen violence, bullying and disruptive behavior and makes schools better equipped to deal with if it does occur.
“The research is pretty clear that if you can create these environments that are more pro-active, you have a greater chance at being able to prepare yourself better as well as respond, Sugai said.
But he added that teaching kindness alone cannot fix the problem of violence.
“It’s probably going to be a multiple community response, it’s going to be families, communities, schools, government in being able to deal with the whole violence issue,” Sugai said after the panel discussion. “I think schools are not going to respond effectively if the larger group doesn’t take on that topic of gun violence in particular as well as hate.”
Briah Barksdale, a local high school senior, developed a program that promotes kindness at her school and said it helped decrease bullying and increase student’s pride in their alma mater.
“I think kindness will make people feel that they are wanted and you never know the impact that it can have on someone else,” Barksdale said.
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