Tapping our greatest resource

We must build strong social supports in schools

BRATTLEBORO — In the wake of the school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a PBS journalist interviewed a college student who had been in classes with the shooter, Adam Lanza, both at Sandy Hook and during high school.

The student reflected on how highly intelligent Lanza was and how isolated he was at school. His extreme shyness kept him from making friends.

Other accounts described Lanza as always sitting alone while riding the bus to school and having difficulty relating to other people. He dressed more formally than other students and carried a briefcase instead of a backpack, which evoked comments. He was different.

The college student ended the interview expressing sadness that he hadn't been more skilled at befriending Lanza.

“If I knew even a little then of what I know now, I would have reached out to him much more,” he said.

Hearing that interview made me pause and think about the link between these horrible recent events and the important work moving forward in our school district.

Here at the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU), students and adult staff supporters are working together in a variety of ways to promote a welcoming, inclusive school community.

The Social Competency Development curriculum trains the student population to combat acts of bullying, harassment, and discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, ability, etc., and to establish positive social networks.

Our efforts focus on the development of the following five social competencies:

• Planning and decision-making: Planning ahead and making choices.

• Interpersonal competence: Having empathy, sensitivity, and friendship skills.

• Cultural competence: Knowledge of and comfort with people of different cultural/racial/ethnic backgrounds.

• Resistance skills: Resisting negative peer pressure and dangerous situations.

• Peaceful conflict resolution: Seeking to resolve conflict nonviolently.

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At the heart of this initiative is the belief that students are our greatest resource in promoting safe schools, and to urge students, with the support of adult staff, to feel empowered to reach out to their peers who are different, and show a sincere interest and curiosity in their interests and skills. This curriculum promotes older students mentoring young students on a variety of levels.

Here are two examples:

At Brattleboro Union High School, 16 collegiate students in the Dimensions of Social Change class are running workshops that promote these social competencies with 750 middle and upper-elementary students. Participants learn how to become “active bystanders” and advocates of restorative practices.

At the School for International Training last August, 65 students in grades 6-8 participated in a three-day summer leadership training. This experience prepared them to serve on their school's leadership team, designed to promote a positive school community.

Each school team defines its own action plan, which might include leading a morning advisory discussion; hosting discussions in classes and assemblies; creating poster exhibitions; welcoming new students to their schools; and monitoring hallways, lunchrooms, and playgrounds. Through team membership, students experience what it's like to live in a positive community.

WSESU students take a School Climate Survey once a year. Overall, the questions relate to the five Social Competencies. Students are asked to rate the extent to which they agree with statements like:

• “I feel like I am part of my school.”

• “I feel safe at school.”

• “I often feel included as part of groups in my school.”

• “There is at least one adult in my school I can talk to.”

• “Students at my school are kind to one another.”

• “I have friends at school.”

• “I am recognized for my good efforts.”

Summaries of the surveys are prepared for each school and reviewed by administrators, staff, and school boards. Some schools host discussions of the survey summary with leadership teams and all students.

If Adam Lanza were taking this survey, how would he have answered?

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In the aftermath of the killings in Newtown, experts have promoted an array of proposals for change. It is distressing that none of these proposals target the greatest resource of all: the students in the school community.

It is vital to tap this resource and give students in our schools the confidence and sense of responsibility to reach out to and include in school life other students who are different.

What if Lanza had not been so isolated and had felt more positive about being in school? Would this story have ended differently?

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