Student and Civil Rights Organizations Champion Urgent Need for SEL, Restorative Justice and Mental Health Supports in Schools
Nineteen New Jersey state and local advocacy organizations filed a formal petition for rulemaking with the State Board of Education urging the adoption of rules to guide the use of state security aid provided to school districts. The petition seeks rules to ensure the funds are spent on evidence-based, effective practices that support student mental health and an inclusive school climate. The petitioner organizations are represented by Education Law Center and the ACLU of New Jersey.
Advocates across the country have pressed local school districts to move from a law-enforcement to a student-centered approach to school safety. The New Jersey legal action breaks new ground by seeking to hold state education officials accountable for ensuring the effective use of funds provided to school districts through the statewide school finance formula.
New Jersey’s weighted student funding formula, the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 or SFRA, provides “categorical security aid” to school districts every year. In the 2021-22 school year, districts received over $280 million in state security aid.
The New Jersey Legislature included this separate category of state aid in the SFRA to enable districts to support safe and supportive learning environments in their schools. But the State Board has not put in place any standards or criteria to guide district spending of these funds, and there is no publicly available data to track how they are spent.
The petition asks the State Board to strengthen school safety plans by requiring districts to spend security aid on proven effective measures that address the social, emotional, and mental health needs of students. These strategies include hiring highly trained mental health professionals and investing in social-emotional learning and programs that use restorative justice practices. The petition also proposes that the rules include a collaborative decision-making process involving district administrators, educators, families, students, and community partners in identifying the most effective strategies for improving school climate and ensuring student and staff safety.
In addition, the petition asks that the State Board prohibit the use of security aid on ineffective expenditures, such as school resource officers (SROs). SROs have been shown to negatively impact students, with disproportionate negative effects on students of color and students with disabilities. The requested rules would not prohibit districts from spending other funds on SROs, but state security aid would become a dedicated source of funding for research-based programs with a proven record of improving school safety and student well-being.
The petitioners include: Disability Rights NJ, Make the Road New Jersey, the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, Newark Communities for Accountable Policing, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, New Jersey Policy Perspective, the NJ Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention, NJ Communities United, NJ21United, People’s Organization for Progress, Save Our Schools New Jersey, SEL4NJ, SPAN Parent Advocacy Network, Princeton Students for Prison Education, Abolition and Reform, The Inclusion Project, The Kennedy Forum, and The School Culture and Climate Initiative. Education Law Center and the ACLU of New Jersey are representing the petitioners and joining them in petitioning the State Board for these changes.
The State Board of Education has 60 days to respond to the petitioners’ request for a rulemaking process.
What petitioners are saying:
“NJ Communities United was aware of the mental health crisis in our communities prior to the pandemic. Over the past two years, the pandemic has exacerbated the mental health challenges in our communities,” said Trina Scordo, Executive Director of NJ Communities United. “That’s why it is more important than ever that security aid be spent on effective strategies that will create and maintain safe and supportive learning environments in New Jersey schools, especially for our most vulnerable families.”
“At my school, I see Black and Latinx students stopped and searched,” said Giovanna Fernandez, Make the Road NJ youth leader. “It disrupts our education and can lead to arrest and even deportation. As schools receive much-needed funding from the state, we need to ensure we are investing in supportive services that will allow us to thrive, not more policing in our schools.”
“To effectuate students’ right to public education, the State of New Jersey has a constitutional obligation to require school districts make effective use of all the funding in their budgets,” said Rebecca Raftery, Harvard Public Service Venture Fund Fellow at Education Law Center (ELC). “This petition is intended to enforce that obligation to ensure students are educated in a safe and supportive learning environment.”
“A caring and supportive school climate should be experienced by all children in NJ,” said State Conference NAACP Education Committee Member Debra Jennings. “This caring and support requires resources dedicated to school counselors who have the skills, knowledge and disposition to provide counseling and other activities that address the social and emotional needs of students; resources for staff development in culturally responsive instruction and classroom management; resources for implementing restorative practices; and resources for student activities beyond the academics that help them to become caring and responsible global citizens.”
“School districts around the state should have a dedicated funding stream available to hire trained mental health professionals and provide other proven supports for our students,” said Joe Johnson, Policy Counsel for the ACLU of New Jersey. “As schools return to in-person learning, providing mental health resources for students is as important as ever. This petition is an important step to ensure that communities can have their voices heard and students can truly be supported within their schools.”
“When schools address school safety through the lens of mental health and evidenced based practices rather than utilizing SROs and exclusionary discipline, they help to prevent youth from becoming justice-involved and reduce the impact of the school to prison pipeline,” said Ruby Kish, Skadden Fellow at ELC.
“Youth who become justice-involved are more likely to drop out of school and face life-long collateral consequences.”
“Unfortunately, students with disabilities are referred to law enforcement for school-based offenses more often than other students. This petition represents a significant step to increase the capacity of schools to identify disability-related behaviors then provide supports and services such as social emotional learning and mental health counseling. It is Disability Rights NJ’s hope that diverting funds from school resource officers and other exclusive discipline practices will increase support and inclusion for students with disabilities,” said Melissa Ziedler, Manager of the Community Inclusion Team at Disability Rights NJ.
“The Institute strongly supports this petition to use security funds for programs that will build up and protect youth who face structural racism in their schools every day,” said Yannick Wood, Director of the Criminal Justice Reform Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “We must stop criminalizing youth of color and start treating them as kids who deserve to learn and thrive in school environments that respect them.”
“Students, families, and caregivers have been calling for better access to care for decades. We owe our students safe and secure environments where they can access effective and comprehensive mental health services and education. For too long we have relied on punitive discipline and ineffective practices that ignite destructive cycles and harm our children. This petition moves us in the right direction by strengthening school safety plans and investing dollars in our children, our future,” said Amy Kennedy, Education Director at The Kennedy Forum.
“The School Culture and Climate Initiative is committed to helping schools become places where all students feel safe, supported and respected,” said Elizabeth Hansen Warner, Co-Founder and Co-Director of the School Culture and Climate Initiative. “We have seen firsthand how taking an integrated approach to improving school climate, with an emphasis on the development of SEL competencies, can lead to a more equitable learning environment that supports academic success and student engagement.”
“Frequent interactions with police are linked to increased anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, especially among children,” said Marleina Ubel, Policy Analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP). “Given the current mental health crisis in schools, we need to do all we can to support our students and set them up for success. That means funding more counseling and support services, not more police in schools.”
“SFRA categorical security aid focused on funding SROs and inadequate safety plans does not equate to a safe and supportive learning environment,” said Peg Kinsell, Policy Director at SPAN Parent Advocacy Network. “Safety plans must be inclusive of all our students and their individual needs. This is of particular necessity for students with disabilities. Focus on law enforcement and punitive measures directed at students and not supportive of the student population leads to inequitable treatment, segregation, over-representation, stigmatized and traumatized students, as well as diminished positive outcomes. This rulemaking is long overdue.”
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