Maryam T. Brotine is assistant general counsel for the Illinois Association of School Boards.
When gun violence strikes a school in the United States, as it so often does these days, myriad questions run through our minds: How did this happen? Why did this happen? What can we do to prevent this from happening again? Will this happen in my community — and are we prepared for it? Since the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018, these questions and more are being discussed at national, state, and local levels among legislators, parents, students, school personnel, and school administrators. But what about school board members? What is the board’s role in responding to the nationwide epidemic of gun violence in schools, and to preventing gun violence in your schools?
Govern by written board policy
A major power and duty of the school board lies in policymaking. You govern by written board policy. Formulating, adopting, and modifying board policies may not garner headlines, but it is essential to effective school board governance. The first fundamental duty of a school board, as articulated in IASB’s Foundational Principles of Effective Governance, is that “The board clarifies the district purpose… The board continually defines, articulates, and re-defines district ends,” and in effective school districts, every part of the organization is aligned with the ends articulated by the school board in written board policy.
Subscribers to IASB’s Policy Reference Education Subscription Service (PRESS) have numerous sample policies available to them that are relevant to the gun violence discussion including, but not limited to, the list on page 19.
We call these “sample” policies because they are designed to be reviewed and customized according to your district’s specific needs. When was the last time that your board dug into these policies and asked, “Does this policy address our needs” or “Is there anything we can add to make this fit us better”? Take it from me — a policy nerd — policies can always be edited and improved upon. But perhaps you have been spinning your wheels with policy and need some fresh input? Look no further than your own community.
Connect With the Community
The second fundamental duty of the school board, as stated in the Foundational Principles of Effective Governance, is to connect with the community, “to engage in an ongoing two-way conversation with the entire community” about education and the public good.
Your board/community conversation about gun violence may have been initiated by students preparing for student walkouts that occurred in March and April to remember victims of gun violence and/or protest gun violence in schools. This conversation may have been continued by district administrators as they examined how to bolster school security, revise school safety plans required by the School Safety Drill Act, and educate the community about ongoing coordination between schools and local law enforcement to maintain safety.
Perhaps your board has embraced social activism and considered passing a resolution, either on its own initiative or in response to requests from community members. Resolutions allow boards to express what they feel is important to their community and for improving teaching and learning in their schools. For example, on March 19, 2018, the Board of Education of Naperville Community Unit School District 203 passed a resolution expressing sympathy for Stoneman Douglas High School and support for student advocacy. Board member Janet Yang Rohr, as quoted in the Naperville Sun, said, “The resolution strives to balance several considerations, such as supporting students and expressing sympathy.” In discussing the resolution, another board member, Terry Fielden, added, “One of the prime directives of the board is to be an advocate of students.”
Within this advocacy role, many educational institutions, national associations, and state associations, including the Illinois School Counselor Association and the Illinois School Psychologists Association, have endorsed the Call for Action to Prevent Gun Violence in the United States of America. Prepared by the Interdisciplinary Group on Preventing School and Community Violence, the Call for Action takes a “public health approach to protecting children as well as adults from gun violence” and promotes “three levels of prevention: (1) universal approaches promoting safety and well-being for everyone; (2) practices for reducing risk and promoting protective factors for persons experiencing difficulties; and (3) interventions for individuals where violence is present or appears imminent.”
Passing resolutions or endorsing calls to action will not be appropriate for every board or every issue, but they can be useful tools for expressing board beliefs while creating trust and support among the community.
Another tool available to boards is found through its fifth fundamental duty in IASB’s Foundational Principles of Effective Governance: to “monitor … progress toward district ends and compliance with written board policies using data as the basis for assessment.” Monitoring data is used by the board for accountability.
Monitoring data regarding the following topics may be relevant to responding to and preventing gun violence in your schools:
Discrimination and harassment complaints filed within your district (involving both students and/or staff). Sample PRESS policy 2:260, Uniform Grievance Procedure, requires the superintendent to keep the board informed of all complaints filed under the Uniform Grievance Procedure. However, complaints may be filed through many avenues. For example, a student may file a discrimination complaint via sample PRESS policy 7:180, Prevention of and Response to Bullying, Intimidation, and Harassment, or a staff member may file a harassment complaint via sample PRESS policy 5:20, Workplace Harassment Prohibited.
The district’s comprehensive safety and security plan, which includes school emergency operations and crisis response plans; provisions for coordinating with local law enforcement and fire officials, emergency medical services personnel, and the board attorney; a school safety drill plan; and a coordinated system of internal and external communication. See sample PRESS policy 4:170, Safety.
The staff development program, particularly in-service training regarding youth suicide awareness and prevention (required by 105 ILCS 5/2-3.166(c)(2)); the warning signs of mental illness and suicidal behavior in adolescents and teens (for personnel who work with students in grades 7 through 12, required by 105 ILCS 5/10-22.39(b)); Educator ethics, teacher-student conduct, and school employee-student conduct (required by 105 ILCS 5/10-22.39(f)); the adverse consequences of school exclusion and justice-system involvement, effective classroom management strategies, culturally responsive discipline, and developmentally appropriate disciplinary methods that promote positive and healthy school climates (required by 105 ILCS 5/10-22.6(c-5)); cultural competency, including understanding and reducing implicit racial bias (required by 105 ILCS 5/10-20.60); and gang resistance education and training (recommended by 105 ILCS 5/27-23.10). See sample PRESS policy 5:100, Staff Development.
School wellness program implementation data. See sample PRESS policy 6:50, School Wellness.
Title I program implementation data. See sample PRESS policy 6:170, Title I Programs.
Student discipline data, available from the Illinois State Board of Education.
The district’s reciprocal reporting agreement with local law enforcement agencies (required by 105 ILCS 5/10-20.14(b)).
Any memoranda of understanding with local law enforcement agencies (recommended by 105 ILCS 5/10-20.14(b)).
The board should have some understanding of this data, but will typically require guidance from staff and related committees to understand it fully. That kind of collaboration is good, because the board cannot be expected to respond to and prevent gun violence in schools alone. It is only by working together — boards, staff, parents/guardians, students, and communities — that we can address this epidemic.
Clickable links for each of the following resources can be found at blog.iasb.com/p/journal-resources.html.
IASB Foundational Principles of Effective Governance
Student discipline data, available from the Illinois State Board of Education.
Schools prepare for school walkouts, IASB News Blog, February 22
School safety plans in the spotlight, IASB News Blog, February 22
“School boards increasingly embrace the ABCs of social activism,” Debbie Truong, The Washington Post, February 17, 2018.
“D203 Board ready to send resolution offering sympathy, support for Parkland students,” Alicia Fabbre and Suzanne Baker, Naperville Sun, March 9, 2018.
D203 Resolution in Honor and Support of Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, Florida
“Call for Action to Prevent Gun Violence in the United States of America,” Curry School of Education, University of Virginia, February 28, 2018.