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A Homeland Security Bill for Education

September 29, 2011 1 comment

This article originally appeared in Education Week. It reflects my belief that schools need to assume more leadership in coordinating the services provided to students before they enter school and while they attend school.

A Homeland Security Bill for Education

 Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the President and his cabinet proposed the creation of a Department of Homeland Security that would improve coordination among law enforcement agencies and provide a means of sharing confidential information gathered by each agency. Last week, congress passed legislation providing this newly created department with the tools it needs to provide the kind of comprehensive planning required to ensure our country’s safety.

Nearly two decades earlier the Nation at Risk report began with this sobering paragraph:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.

Our nation’s response to this “attack from within” focussed completely on public schools, overlooking the fact that public schools are not the sole providers of services to children. After years of struggling to address the concerns raised by A Nation at Risk, public school leaders might consider proposing an Education Homeland Security Act. Such a bill would be written to improve coordination among the agencies that provide services to at risk children and to provide a means for those agencies to share confidential information.

Public schools have worked for years to see that no child is left behind, and teachers and administrators know that many– if not most– of the children who are being left behind are already identified and are already receiving services from other agencies. Unfortunately, these services are uncoordinated because of turf issues among the agencies and issues of confidentiality. Two cases from my career as a Superintendent of Schools illustrate how this lack of coordination and communication plays out in schools.

In the mid-90s, one of my assistant high school principals informed me that a parent in his school advised him that a recently enrolled transfer student moved into our district after being charged with murder in another community.  The parent, a State trooper who had knowledge of these charges from his work, thought that the school should know this. He provided us with a means of confirming this information using public information sources. While the information was available through FOIL requests, because of confidentiality issues the district was not informed of this pending charge when the student enrolled. This extreme situation is in no ways unusual. Because of confidentiality laws and agency regulations, schools are often unaware of criminal activities of students in the community. Students on probation for crimes ranging from shoplifting to assault are enrolled in schools without the knowledge of school administrators. Without objective information, school administrators are forced to rely on hearsay or community gossip regarding students’ activities out of school. Furthermore, because of confidentiality issues and heavy caseloads for probation officers, schools are often unaware of the conditions of probation set forth by judges, conditions that often require regular school attendance and/or passing grades. Sadly, this lack of coordinated services results in a lost opportunity for meaningful intervention, an opportunity for child welfare workers to demonstrate to at-risk youngsters that the adults in the community care about them and are united in their effort to improve their quality of life.

In the same school district, a parent who was adopting an at-risk handicapped child from an inner city school district was shocked to find that none of the five caseworkers from each county who attended his meeting to complete the adoption process had communicated with either school district. The only way the school district would be informed of any of the efforts of any of the agencies was if the district initiated contact with each of the agencies independently after the child encountered problems in school.  This, too, is typical of communication between child welfare agencies and public schools. Districts are often unaware of problems a student is encountering at home or services the student is receiving from child welfare workers that are designed to support the child’s efforts at school.

This lack of agency coordination brings to mind the fable of the five blind men touching an elephant and independently describing its appearance. Based on feeling the tail, the legs, the trunk, the ears, and the body of the creature each blind man developed a wildly different picture of the animal. Like the five blind men, independent agencies cannot develop a clear picture of the child they serve. They can only get a true understanding through sharing of information. Without this shared knowledge, it is impossible for any agency to develop a coherent strategy for providing coordinated services.

Like the problems with law enforcement agencies, the lack of coordination among the various agencies serving children can only be addressed through legislation, legislation that is based on meeting the individual needs of the child at risk. Like the recently enacted Homeland Security Bill, an Education Homeland Security Bill would need to address two hot-button issues: confidentiality and territoriality.

The public’s consensus to allow information sharing among law enforcement agencies is predicated on two articles of faith. First, the public believes the sharing of each agencies confidential information regarding suspected terrorists is needed to ensure public safety. Second, the public trusts that the databank on suspected terrorists will be established in accordance with the legislation and used only for the purpose set forth in the legislation.

The notion of assembling a database on at-risk students, like the notion of assembling a database of potential terrorists, is frightening. The benefits of sharing the confidential information among service providers, however, are far-reaching and essential to ensuring that no at-risk child is left behind. Because success in school is the basis for success in life and the basis for defining each child’s self-image, service providers would benefit from knowing about a child’s performance in school. Because a child only spends one fourth of their time in school, schools would benefit from knowing about the problems a child is encountering at home or in the community. In sharing information, each party would learn more about the individual child and be able to motivate the child more effectively. Both the service providers and educators have a common goal for every at-risk child: they want them to be successful learners and to have an improved quality of life. This overarching goal ought to compel cooperation among child welfare agencies the same way that the overarching goal of community safety is compelling cooperation among law enforcement agencies.

The issue of expanding the sharing of confidential information inevitably raises the specter of misuse of this information. Implicit in this concern is a mistrust of the government or of workers in “the other agencies” who might disclose confidential information inappropriately. Child welfare workers–be they social workers, counselors, probation officers or teachers– are currently adhering to the confidentiality guidelines established by their place of work. The fact that this information is NOT being shared among agencies is evidence that these child welfare workers can be trusted to follow confidentiality guidelines. The public now operates under the assumption that child welfare workers are following confidentiality guidelines within their agencies and all evidence indicates the public’s trust is justified. Why would the public believe that these workers would operate differently if their agency’s confidential information were shared with other child welfare workers who adhere to confidentiality guidelines?

Interagency cooperation exists in many states, but federal confidentiality guidelines and agency confidentiality guidelines often preclude the free exchange of information between case workers trying to achieve a common goal. Public schools and child welfare workers need to share information and coordinate services if we want schools that leave no child behind. To achieve that goal, the public needs to place the same faith in our schools and child welfare agencies that we have placed in our law enforcement.  An Education Homeland Security Bill would signal that kind of trust.

 

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