Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici meets with UO faculty to discuss safety in high schools

First published in the Daily Emerald on July 24th, 2018. U.S. House of Representatives member and University of Oregon alumna Suzanne Bonamici, D-OR 1st District, met with eight professors and researchers in the College of Education last Friday afternoon for a roundtable discussion.

The discussion focused on research being done by UO faculty to improve safety in high schools. The research, which is in part funded by a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Education, encompasses a variety of different proposals for improving the safety and wellbeing of high school students.

As a vice ranking member of the House’s Committee on Education and the Workforce, Rep. Bonamici says that school safety is something she feels passionately about. She is interested in learning about the research being conducted at UO, and disagrees with some of the school safety proposals meant to prevent school shootings that have been discussed nationally in recent months.

“I’m hoping to hear from some of the experts here about what we can do in terms of policy that does not involve arming teachers, because I’m very much opposed to that,” Bonamici said.

Rob Horner, professor emeritus of special education at UO, began the discussion by thanking Bonamici for her attendance. After faculty members introduced themselves, Bonamici then discussed her personal and professional background regarding education, including legislation she has worked on and her experiences with current school safety issues.

Rep. Bonamici serves on the House’s Committee on Education and the Workforce and came to hear policy suggestions from UO faculty and researchers on July 20, 2018 (Brad Moore/Emerald).

“What I’m hearing today concerns me — not only about gun violence in schools — but students being worried and stressed, discrimination, and students not feeling safe,” Bonamici said. “I’ve had students tell me they walk into a classroom and the first thing they do is figure out where they can hide and how they can escape.”

UO faculty then took turns discussing research they had conducted or proposed.

Senior research associate and associate professor K. Brigid Flannery talked about a proposal for adapting the Check-in/Check-out behavioral intervention protocol for high school students. Check-in/Check-out involves teachers meeting with individual students at various times during the school day to discuss behavioral improvements they’re working on.

Flannery noted that many new high school students struggle with changes in context and expectations, and that this intervention method could help prevent the behavioral problems that often occur when they’re transitioning from middle school.

Julia Heffernan, whose research primarily focuses on gender and sexuality issues in education, discussed how research has shown that inclusive curriculums and affinity groups, such as gay-straight alliance clubs, can mitigate the levels of bias and violence that marginalized high school students face.

In an interview following the meeting, Heffernan described one successful example of an inclusive curriculum in elementary schools that sought to end the use of the word “retarded,” a derogatory term for individuals with physical, developmental or mental disabilities.

“There were campaigns about banning the word ‘retarded,’ which was the most frequently used slur in elementary schools for any kind of deficiency,” Heffernan said. “And as teachers taught that inclusive curriculum about — who is this community? Who are these folks? You see a reduction in the violence that happens.”

John Seeley, a member of UO’s Prevention Science Institute, discussed youth suicide intervention methods. Seeley’s research team is helping with the rollout and implementation of Oregon’s Youth Suicide Intervention and Prevention Plan. Their efforts focus not only on the prevention of youth suicide, but also on “post-vention” strategies that help communities cope with emotional trauma following a suicide.

Bonamici remarked on the importance of these post-vention strategies, relating that she had spoken with students who were reluctant to speak with school counselors about emotional trauma.

“They said there’s so much stigma that they don’t go to counselors at school,” Bonamici said. “They just don’t go talk to anybody because they’re afraid of being seen.”

Horner then talked about the proven effectiveness of building positive social environments in schools, wherein all students know what behavior is expected of them. He said that research over the past 20 years has shown that improving schools’ social environments greatly reduces behavioral problems and increases attendance and academic performance.

“When you actually teach those expectations, it shifts from something where the adults are controlling the agenda to where the students are simply expecting good behavior from each other,” Horner said.

He also noted that due to budget limitations that schools often face, the UO research staff is taking into account the sustainability and costs of school safety interventions.

“In education one of the things you’ve got to be worried about with funding, is how do we fund things not only that work, but that become easier the second year, easier the third year, and are likely to continue on?” said Horner.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Bonamici thanked the UO faculty for their research efforts and promised to share their findings with her legislative staff for use in future conversations about school safety measures.

“We have to come up with ways to make sure that all students have safety,” she said. “As we go forward, this will be helpful.”