Students testify before education committee to garner support for safe schools

Kevin Golembiewski '13

Kevin Golembiewski ’13

Two weeks ago, eight Harvard Law School students in the HLS Education Law Clinic of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI) spent a full day at the Massachusetts State House, testifying before the Joint Committee on Education and lobbying legislators to garner support for legislation proposed by the Clinic to create safe and supportive school environments.

The HLS students, who in the Clinic represent children traumatized by violence or abuse in special education and school discipline matters, said the experience was invaluable in connecting the direct services they provide to clients with policymaking at the state house, and vice versa. “It was really amazing to be able to talk about the individual case I’m working on at the Clinic and connect that to the policy level,” said Shelley Rosenberg ’13, adding that legislative aides “could tell I’m really passionate and really care about kids” as she described how children would benefit from the legislation.

Maia Cogen ’13, who talked to more than 15 legislative aides, said, “The experience was helpful to my education as a law student because it helped to reinforce the notion that the actions of the legislators are critical to individual casework.”

H 1962, An Act for Safe and Supportive Schools, was filed in January by Representative Martha Walz (D-Boston), and is currently being amended with the help of HLS students. H1962 requires schools to develop action plans to create safe and supportive environments by 2017, using a framework originally derived from TLPI’s publication, Helping Traumatized Children Learn. The bill, would also establish a commission to oversee statewide implementation of the framework in schools, establish a Centers of Excellence grant program to fund exemplar schools that wish to serve as models, and require the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to provide technical assistance to schools.

In the past five or six years, many schools have established a wide variety of initiatives to help students, addressing bullying, truancy, traumatized children, and students with social or emotional difficulties. But schools are struggling to implement and coordinate these many efforts, according to Susan Cole, Director of the Clinic, and Assistant Clinical Professor Michael Gregory. Cole, who is an HLS Lecturer on Law, founded TLPI in conjunction with Massachusetts Advocates for Children, a non-profit child advocacy organization in Boston. Research shows that the goals of all these initiatives would be reached through a broader framework that provides a safe and supportive environment for all students, whether they fall under the auspices of a specialized initiative or not. H 1962 provides schools with a uniform process and an organizational tool that address six core aspects of school operations, including leadership, professional development, access to services, academic and non academic strategies, policies and procedures and collaboration with families.

“The educational environment has to be safe and supportive for everyone, whether they have diagnosed disabilities or are coming in to school under a lot of stress from home,” says Gregory. Through TLPI, he and Cole have worked at both the policy and direct-representation levels to convince schools to support students who’ve been traumatized by violence and abuse, rather than expelling and suspending them. But the framework the project has developed to support children with problems also benefits other students, they say.

Kevin Golembiewski ’13, who is focusing his clinical practice on policy work, testified before the committee to emphasize the importance of the proposed legislation. “I talked about my own experiences in public education as a kid, and I tried to drive home the message that all kids” need a safe and supportive environment at school, whether they have special needs or disabilities or not, Golembiewski said. “What’s great about this legislation is that, for the first time, it acknowledges that every kid has issues” that would benefit from the framework proposed by the research of TLPI. Educators from five school districts that have already implemented the framework—Winchendon, Reading, North Central Charter School, Boston and Brockton—also spoke in favor of the bill.

Afterwards, the HLS students fanned out across the state house to talk with legislative aides, describing how their own constituents would benefit from the proposed legislation. Of the 200 legislators in the state house, the students talked with the legislative aides for about 170. “It was intense,” Golembiewski said.

Cole said it was an invaluable experience for the students. “The goal was to show them that the casework they do in the Clinic gives them such valuable knowledge and provides the credibility to sit at the table with highest officials in state and advocate on [their clients’] behalf,” she said. “To actually see how the education system is impacting our most vulnerable children, and advocate for them at the highest levels, that’s a key goal of TLPI.”

The efforts to require the school framework began two-and-a-half years ago after the Massachusetts legislature passed “An Act Relative to Children’s Mental Health”. The clinic played a role in proposing language that, among other things, called for the creation of the Behavioral Health and Public Schools Task Force to develop a framework based on the six elements in TLPI’s framework. The Commissioner of Education as chair of the Task Force appointed MAC, giving TLPI a seat at the table, along with others including the Commissioners for all child-serving state agencies, and numerous associations and parent organizations. The task force’s report included a number of recommendations to create safe and supportive school environments which will be included in the bill.

Cole and Gregory said the next step is to advocate with the chairs to vote the bill favorably out of the Education Committee. Clinic students will help organize a legislative briefing in the spring to move the bill forward to the floor of the House and beyond.