Tahlequah Grants Provide Synergy for SUCCESS, Springboard for Sustainability
This profile shows how the Tahlequah, Oklahoma School District matched its Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) initiative—Support, Understanding, Collaboration and Consistency Equals Safer Schools (SUCCESS)—with other grant resources to mold an initiative that adapted proven methods to local conditions. The profile also shows how a small community can have a big impact on state education policy.
Tahlequah—a community of 15,000 people—in northeastern Oklahoma faces special challenges in serving its public school students. Concerns include violence, substance abuse, and low academic achievement. Transportation and a tight school budget are perennial issues. More than half of the district's 3,400 students are American Indian, many of whom live far outside the city, while per capita school expenditures are well below state and national averages.
Putting It Together
With an eye toward the pivotal pre-teen years, Tahlequah's SS/HS initiative focused largely on middle school students. Program content was structured around three types of staff. School Resource Officers (SROs) address security issues. Preventionists deliver violence and drug prevention curricula, implement peer counseling activities, and work with various agencies to meet students' mental health needs. Therapists work on more intense mental health issues and pressing behavioral concerns.
The initiative emphasizes after-school activities. Working closely with the Boys and Girls Club, the after-school program extends the school day for hundreds of students, offers recreational and other activities, and provides transportation for low income, rural students.
Tahlequah found that aligning program content with the district's vision and local conditions was more daunting than organizing the effort. According to Middle School Coordinator (MSC) Val Dobbins, the fledgling initiative operated on a trial and error basis for the first year or so.
Fortunately, Tahlequah's SS/HS grant was followed closely by a grant from Safe and Drug Free Schools. Ms. Dobbins says the two 3-year grants meshed perfectly. The MSC grant provided staffing that enabled Tahlequah to research best practices and issues related to policy and coordination.
Ms. Dobbins says Tahlequah looked at many violence and drug prevention curricula. To craft the schools' anti-bullying approach, the team drew from several models including Hazeldon No Bullying; Aggressors, Victims, and Bystanders; and Olweus Bullying Prevention. For drug prevention activities, the initiative combined elements of Project Alert and Life Skills Training.
Finding Common Ground
Tahlequah took an important step when it defined bullying to include physical and non-physical behavior. Ms. Dobbins says the Tahlequah team got everyone on board—from administrators to cafeteria workers. She explains, "This was huge. Teachers as well as kids didn't realize that a lot of behavior was bullying."
The bullying prevention effort called attention to the roles of bullies, victims, and bystanders and focused on five techniques to deal with bullying. Tahlequah's program also identified myths such as the idea that only boys are bullies. Safety coordinator Fred Poteete observes, "Bullying for girls can be very sneaky and hurtful."
Tahlequah also designed its campaign against bullying to get information from students. Students in grades 7 to 12 can use SNAP (Student Needs Assistance Pronto) boxes to report problems, while 5th- and 6th-graders use Bug (for what's bugging a student) boxes to file complaints. A hotspot survey gives each child a map to mark unsafe areas.
Making a Big Splash
Tahlequah's anti-bullying efforts drew the attention of State Senator Herb Rozelle who once taught in Tahlequah schools. The Senator co-authored the School Bullying Prevention Act. Passed in 2002, the law requires all Oklahoma school districts to come up with policies and programs to prevent harassment, intimidation, and violence.
Tahlequah received national attention for its role in sparking State legislation. Television coverage included Dateline and a Canadian program on bullying, while articles appeared in several newspapers. Mr. Poteete has trained school staff in other Oklahoma districts and in other parts of the country.
For all of its publicity and success in advancing its prevention programs, Tahlequah was not getting very far in building relationships beyond school walls.
Ms. Dobbins notes that members of the Tahlequah team attended every SS/HS conference, always learning more and returning home with added motivation. Yet, participation in these events kept pointing to communication as an obstacle. She notes bluntly, "Our programs were wonderful, but our process was terrible."
Communication with other organizations became a more pressing concern as the end of the SS/HS grant neared. Ms. Dobbins credits the SS/HS Communications Team (CT) for giving Tahlequah's outreach to other agencies a much needed boost.
Especially important was a 2003 meeting to cement relations with the Cherokee Nation, a tribal organization that spans 14 counties in eastern Oklahoma. Despite the Cherokee Nation's prominence and the fact that most of the students served by Tahlequah's SS/HS initiative are American Indian, the Cherokee Nation had never endorsed the grant. Past attempts at collaboration had been challenging and relations remained distant. CT members developed plans for outreach and consensus building and helped to facilitate a productive meeting.
The SS/HS initiative was successful in several ways. Teachers and academic counselors who were stretching to address mental health issues saw SUCCESS staff as great resources. Tahlequah's bullying prevention leadership may be its best known accomplishment. Still, more telling outcomes for the district's learning environment include clear policies, shared views, and systematic responses to problems. As for tangible results, Tahlequah schools have seen sharp drops in violent incidents and suspensions.
Tahlequah's SS/HS grant has ended. However, Ms. Dobbins notes that "Collaboration was key in sustaining many of our activities."
A COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) in Schools grant, which combines education and law enforcement functions, will keep SROs on the job. The local mental health agency is providing three therapists and a case manager to Tahlequah's schools. As well, the school district is supporting a full-time student advocate who will teach violence and bullying prevention for the district. In addition, the state Department of Human Services will also be supporting a half-time social worker who will be on site in Tahlequah's schools.
The school district also is seeking to develop new activities. Efforts are under way to develop a Student Assistance Program which would refer students to outside agencies.
Perhaps most important for the future is Tahlequah's progress in laying a foundation for sustainability. An important SS/HS product is Tahlequah BEST (Bringing Everyone's Strengths Together), a forum that brings together agency heads on a quarterly basis. The collaborative process has been expanded as business and faith-based organizations have gotten involved.
Summing up the SUCCESS experience, Ms. Dobbins observes, "Safe Schools/Healthy Students was a true blessing. It was so encompassing that it just leaked into other areas."