Oregon SS/HS Initiative Builds on History of Cooperation
When the Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) Initiative came along in 1999, the stage for collaboration already was set in central Oregon's Crook Deschutes (now High Desert) Education Service District. The preceding years had seen the start of two efforts that meshed with the Federal push for school safety and integrated youth services.
Laying the Foundation
As SS/HS Administrator Judy Scales puts it, Deschutes County is ".150 miles and a mountain range away from the State's population centers." In the early 1990s, rapid growth created a surge in social problems, including soaring juvenile crime and child abuse and neglect.
Given these changes and the area's isolation, local leaders saw a need for schools, service providers, faith communities, businesses, and community groups to join forces to connect families with services.
According to Ms. Scales, "We had needs and services, but we needed an access point." By 1994, the Family Access Network (FAN) was created as an unfunded entity with school-based advocates identifying at-risk students and linking them with available services.
The Safe Schools Alliance (SSA) was born in 1998 when a shooting at an Oregon school prompted law enforcement officials to ask what more they could do to prevent youth violence. Initial efforts were focused on coordination among police departments, responsiveness to schools, and links to other organizations.
Putting It Together
The two networks-spanning safety and services-were a perfect fit for an SS/HS grant. While local officials and providers had learned to appreciate different perspectives, Ms. Scales says the grant allowed them to build systems for cooperation.
Ms. Scales and her SS/HS team spent a lot of time setting protocols. Criteria were established for removing students from school, and risk assessments were required for return. A zero tolerance policy let students know that they would be arrested for fighting and stealing. At the same time, the initiative built in counseling and resolution of personal and family issues to put students on the right track.
The area's three law enforcement agencies worked out a system whereby the closest officer responds. Response times promptly dropped. The SSA also developed a Quick Reference Guide for Emergencies that is posted in every classroom so that teachers will know what procedures to follow.
One of the more visible aspects of the Deschutes initiative, which covered 37 K-12 and preschool sites, has been the school resource officers (SROs) assigned by local police departments. Ms. Scales says that the police have done a great job in choosing officers to serve as SROs.
She observes that the job calls for an officer who is prepared to get close to students, lead group activities, and emphasize counseling and teaching in addition to enforcement. This approach worked as SROs began reporting that their work had shifted toward working with students.
Mental health also was a big part of the Deschutes initiative, with a quarter of the SS/HS funds earmarked for this area. Ms. Scales notes that fear and stigma make it hard for people to access mental health services and that institutional fear within schools is an added barrier.
Therapists placed in schools provide individual and group counseling and case management. They work closely with FAN, SROs, and school personnel to create individualized plans for prevention and intervention. Ms. Scales adds that figuring out what kind of therapists needed to be placed in schools was an important planning issue.
Continuing the Effort
Despite its strong foundation, the initiative has required continuing attention to extend its progress. Ms. Scales says that the greatest barriers come from people's perceptions. Helping them to understand the broader picture is an ongoing task as new people come on board.
Guided by a vision of FAN and SSA as a dynamic system, the Deschutes SS/HS team has tweaked the initiative continuously. Ms. Scales notes that SSA has no real power, but it has earned such respect that people will go back to their agencies and change something.
Getting the Word Out
A big lesson learned in the SS/HS experience was the importance of communications. Ms. Scales confesses that while Deschutes felt obliged to include communications in its grant proposal, communications was seen as a dirty word, something that would drain money away from services.
An SS/HS communications institute persuaded the Deschutes team that having a consistent message would be important to their success. They created three videos about SS/HS, involving students and officials in production.
Deschutes got hands-on help from the SS/HS Communications Team. Spokesperson training primed everyone-administrators, teachers, SROs, family advocates, and service providers-to speak about SS/HS with one voice. The Communications Team also helped to develop an annual communications plan for FAN.
Making an Impression
The investment in communications paid off. Focus groups found that everyone had a common understanding of the initiative. A telephone survey showed that one-third of the county general population knew about FAN and SSA.
Looking at Results
Ms. Scales says that a full range of outcomes from the SS/HS initiative is hard to document. She says that the initiative got off on the wrong foot by setting goals that were hard to measure. Citing "too many agencies doing too many things" and a change in evaluators, she says that Deschutes never overcame a data collection issue.
Still, evaluation showed that the grant's most significant outcomes were capacity building and cementing networks for collaboration. An intensive case study in one school found that the initiative provided the right services to the right students, including the 5 to 7 percent who required intervention.
Sustaining the Effort
The Deschutes initiative is alive and well despite a local economy that faltered as the SS/HS grant ended. There has been belt-tightening, but about two-thirds of the grant activities are continuing.
Mental health funds were reduced. However, the school system allocated funds to keep the therapists as well as the SROs in place.
The FAN advocates continue their work, supported in part by Title 19 indirect claiming, which reimburses school districts for administrative expenses incurred when providing outreach, planning, or coordination of Medicaid-eligible services for children.
The initiative began working in the second year of the grant to obtain other support. The search extends to foundations and efforts to secure a slice of the local tax base, while FAN holds an annual fundraiser and keeps itself in the public eye by adhering to its communications plan.
Summing up the SS/HS experience, Ms. Scales credits the can-do attitude adopted by a fast-growing rural community that no one else paid much attention to. She says simply, "Things go better when you work together."