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Spring 2013, Volume 21, Number 2

Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District, MA

For the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District in western Massachusetts, reducing youth violence centers on building students’ relationships with each other and everyone else they encounter during the school day. When schools noticed problems on school buses, for example, they invited bus drivers into classrooms to describe their jobs and even their hobbies.

“By sharing that information and emphasizing those relationships, we’ve been able to create a better climate on the buses,” said Gina S. Kahn, Ed.D., CAGS, who directs the district’s Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) program.

That push to build relationships exemplifies the approach the program takes to creating a safer, healthier school environment. A cornerstone is the use of Responsive Classroom and Developmental Designs methodologies, which help students develop meaningful adult connections, reinforce a sense of responsibility and respect, and engage students in setting goals for success.

“Responsive Classroom and its middle-school counterpart Developmental Designs provide the classroom organizational framework that ... allows the other aspects of our program to take hold,” said Dr. Kahn. The key feature of both is a daily morning meeting where children meet with their teacher or advisor and discuss a theme, such as respect; address a classroom concern; or build a sense of community and practice positive peer interaction by playing developmentally appropriate games together.

The district’s SS/HS program also relies on an evidence-based curriculum called Botvin LifeSkills Training. Delivered via the district’s health program to grades 3 through 9, the training teaches students how to communicate better, resolve conflicts, and learn other skills. Designed to reduce violence, it has also been shown to reduce substance use. The training also features collaboration with community partners. While health educators facilitate the training, the school resource officers and substance use prevention specialists also get involved.

Of course, the SS/HS program also works with partners beyond the school walls. A representative of the local community-based mental health service is part of the SS/HS core management team, for example. That agency “can also provide short-term case management type services to families whose needs go beyond the school environment and yet impact the adjustment of their son or daughter in the school setting,” said Dr. Kahn. The local YMCA offers after-school activities. Police and fire department personnel are also involved.

The approach is paying off. For example, the percentage of district high school students who reported being in at least one fight in the previous year dropped from almost 24 percent in 2009 to 18 percent in 2012. At the elementary school level, the number of disciplinary incidents has dropped in every category except school bus-related incidents.

A new elementary counseling grant from the U.S. Department of Education will allow the school district to hire more school psychologists as well as sustain things such as the Responsive Classroom training.

“This will help take us to the next level of bringing the knowledge and lessons learned from SS/HS and really embedding them systematically in the district,” said Dr. Kahn.

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