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A Safe Place to Learn and Grow

By Dale Erquiaga March 6, 2018

In his book The Last Dropout, Communities In Schools (CIS) Founder Bill Milliken set out the Five Basics, the things that every young person needs and deserves.  The second item on that list: “A safe place to learn and grow.” 

The CIS National Office seeks to live up to these words by engaging in the dialogue that has gripped the nation since the school shooting in Parkland, Florida on February 14.  Students have lifted their voices and propelled the national conversation to places it’s never been before.  While school violence – and gun violence – are not new for some of the students and families we serve, the level of public debate has undeniably reached a new level.  As one CIS alum recently told me, “This issue is not new, it’s just fresh.”  And it’s therefore important to remind policymakers, funders, and educators that Integrated Student Supports can be part of the nation’s effort to move forward.

We know the role that CIS plays in helping to improve school climate.  We know the power of caring relationships, even in cases of severe mental and behavioral health issues.  We know our work can contribute to a comprehensive school plan to address many forms of trauma.  This is true whether it’s the recent shooting in Florida, the bullying of a gay teen in Nevada, the opioid crisis in West Virginia, or the post-disaster stress in Texas.  Our evidence-based model and most importantly, our trained caring adults, have a role to play.

To maximize that role and carry out our strategic plan’s goal of creating positive policy environments, we need to carry the message of our work into the public space created by those students leading the way.  This is not a one-time adjustment in our communications strategy; it is not a departure from our mission to surround students with a network of support.  It’s simply and yet importantly an elevation of the basic belief in the need for safe places for children, delivered at a time when America is listening.

In the coming weeks and months, we will:

  • Urge that Congress restore school safety and security spending that has been proposed for elimination and reduction by President Trump’s administration. 
  • Work with community and nonprofit partners to elevate policy and funding recommendations related to school safety as well as comprehensive and effective mental and behavioral health services in our nation’s schools.
  • Encourage individual state and local CIS affiliates to amplify their best practices related to trauma-informed care and school safety so that other members of the CIS family can benefit.
  • Help the media and stakeholders understand the full story of trauma and violence in our schools, always with Integrated Student Supports and social emotional learning at the center of an appropriate response.

Finally, many of the national office staff will join the student-led March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C. on March 24, and we will employ social media to draw attention to the event.  As an organization whose mission is to keep kids in school and on track to graduation, we will not promote student walk-outs. We will look for more ways to lift up student voices.  But the march is, for us, a part of the national conversation which we must join as we work to speak for safe spaces, student supports, and equity.

I acknowledge that not all members of the CIS family agree with the decision to participate in the march.  I’ve taken time to consult with the national board, staff, state affiliate leaders, and our alumni leaders.  I’ve heard the words of caution.  I do not claim to speak for the network or our partners and allies in this instance, although I hope others will find a way to participate as well.  For me, this is about being willing to follow in the footsteps of students and taking a stand that demonstrates we are truly #AllinForKids.

To be honest, I have not come to this decision lightly or easily.  My state suffered through a school shooting when I was superintendent of public instruction in Nevada.  I’ve since visited CIS schools where violence is a part of everyday life.  I wish I had done more, earlier.  I know that speaking out on some of these issues is not without risk – but I also know that our students face risk every single day.  And now I choose to follow their lead. 

I hope you will join them.