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Columnist William Diehl: Safe and supportive schools for all

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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

March 14 marks one month since the tragic shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Today is a day to solemnly remember the 14 students and three educators who were killed and to engage in reflection and civil discourse about preventing gun violence in schools. Divergent political views notwithstanding, we can unite in a commitment to pay our respects to these victims, and to the victims of 104 fatal shootings on school grounds since Columbine in 1999.

As the 20 superintendents of 33 public school districts in Hampshire and Franklin counties, and as the executive director of the Collaborative for Educational Services, we place a top priority on safe and supportive schools for all. To that end, our schools have long been engaged in multiple initiatives — including appropriate building security, collaboration with local law enforcement and educator training — in response to threats to school safety.

We have also built proactive systems and supports across all our schools and grades that are necessary for our children and youths to be safe and to thrive. These may include, but are not limited to, an increased focus on social and emotional learning; bullying prevention; asset-based, student-centered and culturally responsive practices; restorative justice and positive discipline approaches; equity and inclusion; trauma-informed education; and an intentional effort to ensure that every one of our students is known by a trusted adult who they can go to for support if and when needed.

Despite these many efforts, there are issues that are simply beyond the capabilities of schools. Providing sufficient and timely mental health services is but one example. Our community partners work with us on interventions and multiple wrap-around services, and together we do our best to address significant student needs.

Yet, we note with alarm insufficient funding for — indeed, a disinvestment in — mental health and counseling services both in and out of school that are so critical for the health and safety of all. We, as a nation, must be willing to invest much more in both the educational system and in a range of needed community supports, including mental health services, for children, youths and families. This has to be one part of a comprehensive response to school violence.

The National School Walkout called for today poses unique challenges and opportunities for us. We want to ensure the safety of, and respect for, all students. On the one hand, we strive to honor the many students in Franklin and Hampshire counties who are responding to the tragedy at Parkland by using the critical lessons they have learned about American democracy and are using their hearts, their feet and their voices to address an issue that is critically important to them and to us. At the same time, we strive to support all students and to make sure other opinions are respected and that students do not feel unduly influenced to follow their peers when they disagree.

To meet these twin challenges, educators and students in our districts are using this day — through classes, discussions, actions, projects, and assemblies, many of them designed by students — as an opportunity to practice, model, teach, and learn about civic engagement, how democracy works and how we bring about change peacefully. Each district is approaching this differently, and is doing so with consideration and respect for the developmental levels of our students in all of our schools.

We are proud to be administrators in Massachusetts public school districts. After all, free public education for all was founded by Horace Mann in Massachusetts.

As a state, and as a nation, we are extraordinary in our commitment and ability to provide appropriate and outstanding education to every single child who enters our system, no matter the many gifts or the challenges each one brings.

Let’s learn from this painful moment how to improve upon this legacy.

William Diehl is executive director of the Collaborative for Educational Services in Northampton.

This column also was signed by superintendents Michael Morris, Amherst Pelham Regional; Karol Coffin, Belchertown; Nancy Follansbee, Easthampton; David Hopson, Gateway Regional; Sheryl Stanton, Granby; Ann McKenzie, Hadley; Craig Jurgensen, Hampshire Regional; John Robert, Hatfield; John Provost, Northampton; Andrew Linkenhoker, Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School; Nicholas Young, South Hadley; Marlene DiLeo, Ware; Jennifer Haggerty, Erving School Union #28; Richard Martin, Franklin County Technical School; Lynn Carey, Frontier Regional; Michael Sullivan, Gill-Montague Regional; Jordana Harper, Greenfield; Michael Buoniconti, Mohawk Trail Regional; Ruth Miller, Pioneer Valley Regional; and Tari Thomas, R.C. Mahar Regional.