School safety issues remain on the forefront of our agenda for the 108th General Assembly. We are addressing the safety issue on multiple fronts. One bill we have fully supported is the “Student-Self Defense Bill” (Senate Bill 113-Sen. Tate/House Bill 860-Rep. Weaver). This bill allows a principal to use their discretion in determining what disciplinary action to take, if any, when it can be proven that a student had been truly defending themselves or another when a fight occurred. This bill has garnered much support across the state. Suspending or expelling a child for defending themselves does not make sense in every case.
In addition, we are supporting two other pieces of legislation that will help create a better learning environment for students and a better teaching environment for teachers. Senate Bill 264-Sen. Gresham/HB966-Rep. D. White, known as the “Assault on Teachers Bill”, takes current Tennessee Code and makes student suspension “mandatory” when they assault a teacher versus being “permissive” and up to the discretion of the principal. Teachers need to know they are safe whether they are performing their jobs or enjoying life on their own time.
Senate Bill 883-Sen. Hensley/House Bill 911-Rep. D. White, known as the “Student Discipline Bill”, which passed the Senate last year, but failed in the House, provides teachers assistance when dealing with students who are sent to the principal’s office and are then returned back to their classroom. Rep. White, a former teacher has taken a strong stand on behalf of teachers in the legislature.
Finally, we are supporting the legislation of Rep. Eric Watson and Senator Frank Nicely. Senate Bill 742-Sen. Niceley/House Bill 504-Rep. Watson details how a district-wide school safety plan would include having School Resource Officers present in each school along with other safety and security measures. We are looking forward to this debate, and resolving this issue.
All of these are steps in a positive direction for public education that should have been commonsense reforms years ago. Also, we have suggested an increase in guidance counselors in our schools. Today, across the nation, too many trained guidance counselors have responsibilities that do not include actual interaction with children, and instead, are being burdened with paperwork that probably could be better handled by an administrative clerk. This is a problem across the nation, not specific to Tennessee.
In addition, nobody is discussing that while many prevention programs have proven effective for students, these programs are rarely available in a manner that meets the unique needs of students with disabilities. This serious discrepancy in educational programming and curriculum spills over into the prevention arena. Research has shown that adolescents with mild disabilities are at an equal and greater risk for drug and alcohol use, school problems, emotional problems, and legal problems. The lack of specific and well-documented statistics for this population makes it extremely difficult to gauge the exact need and design of prevention programs. Most of the programs created for students with disabilities are designed by the classroom teachers themselves. Classroom teachers do not get recognized enough for their innovation in the classroom, or their commitment to individualization of the needs of students. The weakness of this approach is that programs are inconsistent and there is little research to evaluate their effectiveness.
Policies at the district, state and federal levels must be designed and implemented, with the successful policies and procedures replicated to address the serious lack of targeted prevention programming. We encourage you to keep informed on education issues. By speaking up we build a stronger public school system to meet the needs of children, teachers and society.
These bills, along with other initiatives undertaken by Professional Educators of Tennessee and interested legislative leaders will surely lead to the improvement of school safety and security. We can never do enough to protect those who work and study behind the walls of any school in Tennessee.
Tim Brinegar is the director of Government Relations for Professional Educators of Tennessee.