NEW PALTZ — Ensuring the safety of our schools is a shared goal that unites parents, students, educators, community members, and government officials. Ulster BOCES, an innovator of educational solutions and collaborator with local schools in Ulster County, plays a proactive role in recognizing and implementing programs tailored to meet the specific needs of the districts it serves. Recognizing the countywide shared goals of bolstering school safety, Ulster BOCES secured a $400,000 federal grant from the U.S. Department of Justice aimed at helping Ulster County school districts mitigate the threat of school violence through a Behavior Threat Assessment (BTA) program—an innovative prevention and intervention initiative. The initiative, which is being rolled out over three years of grant funding, is grounded in providing support to students and cultivating a nurturing and positive school environment.
BTA is an evidence-based approach to school safety that was created for the Justice Department by Dr. Dewey G. Cornell, a renowned Professor of Education at the University of Virginia and a nationally known expert in school threat assessments. The program focuses on identifying risk factors and taking proactive measures to safeguard students’ mental and physical well-being, helping to steer them away from a path that leads to violence.
To bolster the initiative, a partnership has also been established with Navigate360, a professionally crafted online case management software that provides evidence-based solutions that align seamlessly with the “CASEL framework,” which focuses on building knowledge, skills, and attitudes across five key areas of social and emotional competence. The tool allows team members to collaborate, in a streamlined and consistent manner, while still preserving confidentiality. Data is only collected for the purpose of teams looking at preventative measures to support students.
“The BTA program is a solution-based approach to violence prevention that focuses on early intervention by addressing issues such as bullying, teasing, and other forms of conflict before they become violent behaviors,” said Dr. Barbara Tischler Hastie, Coordinator of School Development/Instructional Services Ulster BOCES, who was at the forefront of the grant application process, along with Ulster BOCES Grants Coordinator Rebecca Anderson. The grant also supports training on suicide awareness and other mental health concerns and includes a workbook created by Cornell.
To date, Rondout Valley, Wallkill, Ellenville, and New Paltz Central School Districts have been participating in the program, which involves training multi-disciplinary teams that may include school administrators, mental health professionals, school resource officers, school nurses, Special Education educators, and other staff as appropriate. The teams work together to assess potential threats and provide effective interventions to support students and prevent violence. One goal, according to Hastie, is to have a consistent language across a district that is shared by all.
“The model gets results,” said Hastie, adding that the Ulster County Division of Emergency Management has also expressed interest in having its staff receive BTA training, which will provide their teams with an understanding of students who are in the workforce and community and create a shared language about how they address needs through preventative measures.
Additionally, Dr. Cornell has trained the Ulster BOCES Instructional Services Behavior/Preventative Support Team, and members now have “train the trainer” certification. “Having local trainers with the ability to train others in the work will ensure the long-term sustainability of the program and ensure ongoing training is available as new staff are hired by schools throughout each year,” explained Hastie.
The philosophy behind this approach, she said, is “Let’s have a shared conversation about what is going on in the child’s life, so we can really look at it through a lens that is compassionate and really supports their learning. Because they deserve that level of dignity and support.” Hastie underscored that this is a proactive initiative, seamlessly complementing the efforts of the District’s behavior support team.
At Wallkill, the building principals, each school’s crisis team, and the assistant superintendent for Student Services are engaged with the program’s computer-based training sessions, said Anthony White, the District’s Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services. Speaking about the program’s software, White said, “One aspect that we like is that it will provide an electronic platform to document incidents and will assist us in making informed decisions to develop safety plans for students.”
Wallkill was eager to take advantage of the BTA training, noted White. “When we were made aware of the grant and the opportunity to participate, we thought that it would be a good opportunity to support our current procedures and programs,” he recalled.
“We are looking forward to having our teams complete the training and fully implement the model,” continued White. “The District appreciates the proactive approach Ulster BOCES took in ensuring school districts were provided the tools necessary to address the mental health needs of our students.”
Rondout Valley Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Services Megan Braren said that the program’s software is allowing her district to easily access important incident information. The program, Braren believes, fills a real need for today’s schools. “What is most beneficial to this research-based model is its focus on assessing threats while avoiding racial, cultural, or disability bias,” she said. “Our goal is to identify students—as early as possible—that need support and connection before they become disenfranchised from the school community.”
Braren firmly believes that the program can help schools in more ways than one. “Not only can it make our schools safer, it can also make our schools more inclusive and supportive to students,” she said. “We are still in the training and pilot phase, but expect a full implementation by the 2023-2024 school year. However, through our trials, we are already seeing its potential.”
For Hastie, the BTA program is supporting her personal passion as an educational leader. “I feel really passionate about helping our youth, our leaders, teachers, and school staff so they can walk into buildings and feel that what they do matters, and most importantly, that everyone feels safe emotionally, physically, and socially,” she said.