At the end of the 2017-18 school year, Wichita Falls ISD leaders put the final touches on a new belief system, incorporating new approaches—and proper staff training—to help us meet the physical, mental, emotional and social needs of our 14,000 students throughout 26 campuses in Texas. Central to our beliefs: Everyone deserves the resources they need to be successful, and we believe a culture of safety and support is essential to learning.
Today, attention to student health is embedded in everything Wichita Falls ISD does. Students not only need all of the academic guidance that we can provide, but they also need a high level of support to ensure that they are OK mentally, emotionally and socially. We’re considering what students feel, what they’re thinking, and how they’re doing emotionally. We’ve codified it into our strategic design framework.
Student safety can’t be an afterthought; it has to be a core focus.
Making this happen on a daily basis requires a districtwide strategic plan for student safety—something that institutions haven’t always weaved into their belief systems.
Here are five steps to get started:
1. Develop specific goals and then work toward them
We spent an entire school year evaluating, adjusting and looking at the systems in place to support our students’ physical, mental, emotional and social needs. This year, we are going to expand related district services, and will move employees into different roles to support those services. Next, we will pinpoint our deficiencies and develop training to address them—all related to recognizing and supporting student needs.
2. Embed safety into your district’s culture
Student safety can’t be an afterthought; it has to be a core focus. Here at Wichita Falls ISD, it’s embedded into everything that we do. We don’t just do it when we know there’s a problem brewing, and we don’t take a reactive approach. We’ve codified it right into our strategic design framework—the same way we would with academics or any other responsibility.
3. Develop a social-emotional learning curriculum
We have an informal curriculum in place to address SEL. For example, our physical education health coordinator covers “hot topics,” bringing in groups of students to discuss bullying, dating violence and drugs. We also have prescribed lessons for every grade level. We use a program called “Capturing Kids’ Hearts” through The Flippen Group, which focuses on creating social contracts in our classrooms. Put simply, it’s about teachers developing relationships with students in a very structured manner.
4. Implement a student safety management platform
When we rolled out our 1-to-1 Chromebooks initiative three years ago, we were relying on a combination of Chromebook filters to detect when students were visiting prohibited websites and/or going against the district’s usage guidelines. We felt pretty safe. Then, we started using Gaggle, a student safety management platform, to monitor what students were really talking and writing about online. The platform has helped us to intervene in 10 situations, which could have turned into crises if no one responded or helped out at the right time. In some cases, the platform prompted administrators to make calls to students’ homes at 2 a.m. or to make impromptu home visits.
5. Leverage resources in your community
District leaders don’t have to go it alone. We have a variety of social services in our town, including the Red River Hospital, counseling organizations, and Boys and Girls Clubs, which work with our schools. These community partners all play a part in our district’s commitment to student wellness. For example, we’ve had groups come into our schools to present on bullying, online security and other important topics.
Time for a change
It’s time for district leaders to put together solid safety plans that factor in students’ physical, mental, emotional and social health. Our student safety management platform has played a key role in our progress. Helping save children’s lives makes the investment and efforts well worth it.
Michael S. Kuhrt is superintendent of Wichita Falls ISD in Texas.