When officials at Intermediate District 287 in Plymouth, Minn., began noticing a few years ago that students of color with mental health and behavioral issues were frequently being called out and arrested by school resource officers, they decided they had to change the culture.
The district removed school resource officers from its self-contained programs and has employed student safety coaches for four years. These SSCs, as they are called, build relationships with students and strive to advocate for them when they engage in challenging behavior rather than punish them.
“These students are already heavily policed in the community,” says Theon Jarrett, one of the original SSCs who now manages them. “School is a safe place for our students. Our approach is more therapeutic than punitive when there is a crisis.”
It’s an approach more districts are considering as they rethink discipline and the role of law enforcement in schools.
At the same time, districts seeking to employ safety coaches should maintain a partnership with law enforcement, says Anne Becker, general counsel for the district. District 287 continues to have partnerships with local police departments where school staff can call a designated officer at a station if they are unsure about a situation, Becker says.
The officers are familiar with the needs of the student population. Schools now mainly call 911 when there is an emergency that requires an ambulance, Jarrett says.
Also recognize that this is not a change that you can make overnight, says Laura Tubbs Booth, a school attorney at Ratwik, Roszak & Maloney P.A. in Minneapolis. “[You] want to be intentional in changing to this new model. You need to understand the needs of your special education community as best you can.”
Make these considerations to emulate the district’s efforts in your buildings when school returns:
- Select SSCs who already have connections with students. Choose paraprofessionals who already have strong relationships with students and go above and beyond in maintaining those connections to be SSCs, Jarrett says. For example, educational assistants who run groups in school, such as a social-skills lunch bunch, and are involved in activities with students in the community, such as coaching a youth sports team, make good candidates for being SSCs at District 287. “They are natural relationship-builders,” he adds.
- Ensure SSCs are highly visible. Safety coaches must be proactive, Jarrett advises. They informally screen all students as they get off their buses in the morning by seeing how they’re doing. Then they spend time in the hallways, classrooms, and their office so students and staff can seek their aid throughout the day if needed. If a student in a morning class begins to show signs that he is struggling and refuses to do an assignment, for example, the teacher can contact a safety coach via walkie talkie to come check on him and figure out what’s bothering him before it bubbles up around lunch time, Jarrett says. An SSC may come into the class and monitor the behavior for a little while. He may ask the student to take a walk and ask him what’s going on. The coach then can help negotiate a resolution, such as time for the student to do a preferred activity for staying on task for a certain amount of time. “I’ll say, ‘I’ll tell the teacher what you were thinking, but we have got to be satisfied with what they say and I’ll support you, whatever they say,'” he says.
- Train on crisis prevention and intervention. SSCs receive training in crisis prevention and intervention with a heavy emphasis on de-escalation techniques, Jarrett says. When the district had school resource officers in the building, they gave students tickets and criminalized their behavior. “We don’t want to criminalize mental health,” he adds. A lot of times, coaches help students save face when they’re “stuck,” Jarrett says. They may feel out of control or embarrassed, so an SSC might say, “You’re stuck and I want to support you and figure out how to get you unstuck and back to class,” he explains. “We try really hard not to blame and shame our students and preserve their dignity.” Indeed, if a student’s behavior escalates, the rest of the students may be removed from the classroom rather than the student. This avoids having to flex power over the student, making the situation worse.
“A lot of times students feel super comfortable when they see SSCs come and let go of their aggression because they know we’re not there to hurt them,” Jarrett says.
Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.