A VISION: Safety & Well-Being Committee

By Sana Efird

Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Education and Early Development, Committee Member 

Safety and Well-Being in Every Alaskan School, for Every Student and Every Staff, Every Day. A Health Inspired Vision for Transforming Alaska’s Education System.

Alaska schools are, statistically speaking, very safe places—in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere safer. Moreover, they are filled with caring and knowledgeable support staff and instructors and populated by curious students with young minds developmentally predisposed to learn and grow at a thrilling pace. So schools are safe and students’ well-being is all but guaranteed during the school day, right? All that’s left to do for students is to come to school each day, learn, and graduate career or college ready, correct? For 5 out of every 10 students who enter our schools each day this is probably true, but for the other 5, unfortunately, it’s not.

Life experiences and living conditions that affect safety and well-being, that impede learning, negatively impact behavior, and take a toll on the health and well-being of many staff and students are commonplace. In the face of this reality, the goal of an excellent education for every student every day cannot be achieved without transforming our statewide response to school safety and well-being needs.

What Our Data Tell Us about Challenges to School Safety and Well-Being:

1) Trauma/major life stressors are common for youth and impact school performance:

  • Approximately 50-60% of school-aged youth have already experienced at least one Adverse Childhood Experience or ACE (stressful life events like death of a parent, parent with mental health issue or substance misuse challenge, etc.)
  • The Alaska statewide graduation rate for the 2015-2016 school year was 76.1%.

2)   Indicators That School Climate Is Not Universally Safe and Welcoming:

  • 5% of Alaska high school students reported not going to school on at least one day in the last 30 days before the survey because they felt unsafe at school or on their way to or from school. This percentage has been increasing since 2007.   (2017 Alaska YRBS)
  • 3% of high school students at traditional high schools were bullied on school property and 19.8% were electronically bullied in the last year. (2017 Alaska YRBS)
  • Only 59% of students in traditional high schools reported feeling their teachers really care about them and show them encouragement. (2017 Alaska YRBS)

3) Data Signaling the Mental and Physical Health Needs of all Students Are Not Being Adequately Addressed:

  • Nationally, 6% of children missed 11 or more days of school in the past 12 months due to illness or injury and 13% to 18 % of children and adolescents have some sort of chronic health condition.
  • It is estimated that at least 20% of Alaska school children do NOT have a school nurse to provide health services in their schools. Only 18.2% of secondary schools in Alaska have a full-time registered nurse, compared to 43.9% nationwide. (2012 CDC School Profiles Survey for Alaska)
  • In Alaska, 33.6% to 44.6% high school students reported feeling so sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks in a row that they stopped doing some of their usual activities.
  • Alaska’s overall suicide rate is almost twice the national average—currently Alaska’s rate is the highest in the nation. In 2015, suicide was the leading cause of death for people ages 14-19.
  • Of school-age children who receive any behavioral and mental health services, 70%–80% receive them at school.
  • 31% of Alaska school districts do not have school counselors and 36% of Alaska schools do not have access to school counseling services

While we’ve all long understood the logic behind requiring a student to master Algebra before tackling Calculus, many of us have been slower to fully grasp that same logic extends to student safety and well-being—only exponentially. The truth is, meeting students’ basic social, emotional, physical, and mental health needs is a prerequisite for all learning. Students can’t leave their basic needs at home and then simply pick them back up when they return home from school. If given a choice, children would undoubtedly elect to leave their challenges at home–but they can’t help but bring these realities to school with them.

Recognizing the magnitude of the impact safety and well-being challenges have on Alaska’s education system, Education Commissioner Michael Johnson and the State Board of Education & Early Development created a priority within Alaska’s Education Challenge dedicated entirely to advancing school safety and well-being. The three safety and well-being transformational recommendations bore out of this Education Challenge priority hold tremendous promise and point to a clear path forward should we elect to follow it.

The Education Challenge’s Transformative Safety and Well-Being Recommendations Are:

Goal 1: Building Trauma Engaged Schools Alaska’s schools will create a culturally humble (responsive) and safe environment that recognizes the needs of the whole child, institutes trauma-informed practices, and understands the vital importance of building all relationships surrounding every child to improve resiliency, health, and academic outcomes.

Goal 2: Improving Student Health To ensure the physical and mental health needs of all students in all schools are addressed, students enrolled in public education will have direct access to school nursing/health and counseling services.

Goal 3: Transforming School Climate Every Alaskan school must work to create a sustainable and positive school climate that is safe, supportive, and engaging for all students, families, staff, and communities.

A Call to Action to Improve School Safety and Well-Being:

School safety and well-being aren’t naturally occurring elements (I promise you won’t find them on any periodic table), but thankfully they are conditions every school can create for every student and staff every day without reinventing the public education system. Transforming our schools to be warm, universally welcoming, healthful, and all-inclusive, community centers will require a call to action for schools personnel, students, parents, community members, and all other vested stakeholders, but it will not require that oil rebound to $100 a barrel. Transforming school safety and well-being will rely primarily on a truly inexhaustible resource; Alaskan resolve directed at ensuring all staff and all students experience themselves for what they are– indispensable and cherished members of their school community.

Alaska School Safety and Well-Being in the Future: A Vision:

  1. Alaska’s future schools prioritize professional development on, and implementation of the exciting advances in trauma engaged schools; profoundly improving the school experience for both staff and students. Our trauma engaged schools foster verdant relationships– between students, between students and staff, staff and parents, and between schools and the communities in which they reside. These relationships personalize the educational process and synergize the pursuit of educational excellence as all school members intrinsically experience their learning matters each and every day. Schools understand how trauma affects health, behavior, and learning, and know how to identify staff and students who are being affected by stressful life events. Schools provide additional support to traumatized individuals and implement innovative practices like restorative justice to keep students engaged in their school community even when they are struggling. Dropout rates, absenteeism rates, and suspension rates are a fraction of what they were before schools became trauma engaged. Our trauma engaged schools graduate caring and contributing community members instilled with powerful strategies on how to compassionately help others who are struggling as well as build self-reliance. Our high school graduates have a rich appreciation of cultural diversity, engaging the world around them with cultural humility and deference. And finally, our resilient and health-competent graduates enjoy improved health outcomes across their entire lifetime.
  2. All schools respond to their students’ physical and mental health needs in an organized and comprehensive manner. Student accessibility to counseling and nursing services is universally recognized as non-negotiable and essential in our school system. Alaska’s schools of the future address all student health needs that constitute barriers to their success at school. Supports for predictable student health challenges like food allergies, asthma, diabetes, depression, and anxiety are firmly in place for all students. The use of distance-delivered counseling and nursing services and more efficient partnering with community providers is commonplace, and direct access to professional mental and physical health services to students even in our most remote schools is the norm. Training for school staff that builds mental health literacy and teach staff how to both assess students who may be having a mental health crisis as well as to connect them to professional support (like Youth Mental Health First Aid) is offered regularly.
  3. Alaska schools are no longer places where only 6 out of 10 students report feeling that their teachers really care about them and show them encouragement. School staff has been trained on how to create and sustain a positive school climate not only for all students and community members who visit but for themselves as well. Schools have become warm, welcoming, and inclusive institutions for all members of their educational community. Alaska schools are now not only gifted at keeping students physically safe during the school day, but rather are equally gifted at delivering a school experience free of bullying, harassment, and intimidation. Students connect deeply to their schools and seek them out as places of belonging and purpose. Schools accomplish this by not only teaching every student the schools’ rules for student behavior but also through teaching students prosocial behavior, character education, and conflict resolution. Teacher retention rates, attendance rates, graduation rates are considerably higher than they were historically, and student disciplinary incidents have enjoyed steep declines.

The vision highlighted above is not grandiose, nor would it take decades to attain. With the support of stronger community partnerships, passionate state and local leadership, the broad implementation of exciting new educational practices, and reasonable resource allocation, this important work can be accomplished.

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The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Association of Alaska School Boards. AASB welcomes diverse perspectives and civil discourse. To submit a Guest Column for consideration, see our Guest Column Guidelines and email your 400-1000 word submission HERE.