Partnership Lessons Learned from the Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) Initiative

By William Modzeleski, Former Associate Assistant Deputy Secretary, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Safe Schools/Healthy Students

photo William Modzeleski.jpg

A Federal View of Collaboration

In the late 1990’s there was a series of school shootings (Pearl, MS; Paducah, KY; Jonesboro, AR; Springfield, OR; Columbine, CO) that caused communities and school districts throughout the country to reassess their approach to school safety.  Decision makers at all levels of government understood that the traditional way of creating safe environments for learning needed to be radically altered.  Instead of dealing with school safety in a silo fashion—that is, schools taking action alone without help or support of organizations outside the educational bureaucracy—a more inclusive strategy needed to be adopted.

In 1999, three Federal agencies (U.S. Departments of Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services) banded together to form an unprecedented collaboration designed to prevent youth violence and promote the healthy development of youth.  The SS/HS Initiative was based on the premise that schools alone did not have the capacity to respond effectively to the wide range of social, emotional, and behavioral problems that confront school administrators and teachers on a daily basis. 

The SS/HS Initiative enabled more than 13 million youth to receive a wide range of services, including a variety of mental health services; after-school services; services to change culture and climate of schools; violence prevention related programs; and school security measures.  Communities in 49 States and 365 different communities received services under this initiative.

The SS/HS Initiative not only enabled school districts around the country to receive the resources needed to address a wide range of problems related to the safety and well being of their students, it also provided a number of “lessons learned” for those interested in developing a comprehensive safe school strategy similar to the SS/HS model.  The lessons learned include the following*:

1.  Be patient:
Most safe school strategies employed by schools were put together piecemeal over a number of years (some over decades), and haven’t proven to be effective in reducing violent behavior. Replacing institutionalized programs that had little evidence of effectiveness with programs and practices that have promise of success can take years.  Communities changing direction should be prepared to deal with this issue over multiple years!

2.  Be bold:
Adopting a strategy that involves multiple agencies often means there are going to be winners and losers.  Leadership has to have the wherewithal and support to force change and to revise and/or eliminate programs, policies, or practices that aren’t effective.  This has often proven to be difficult as some of a school’s institutionalized programs, practices and policies have considerable support.  Leadership needs to have backbone and be willing to do whatever is needed to eliminate those practices that can’t demonstrate that they are effective.

3.  Have a funding strategy:
Prevention and early intervention programs cost money! Prevention can’t always be done cheaply.  Those developing comprehensive strategies need to be prepared to find new avenues for funding, because without them, efforts for change will be severely handicapped.  Also, when developing a funding strategy, schools/communities need to reach out to other partners (businesses, foundations, entrepreneurs) for support as most schools don’t have the resources (both staff and dollars) necessary to support a truly comprehensive prevention/early intervention strategy.

4.  Identify a host of partners:
Over and over again, school officials will say, “We can’t do it by ourselves.”  Schools alone cannot provide all the services needed to develop a truly comprehensive approach to the safety and well being of students.  There is a need not only to find partners that can help schools achieve their objectives but also to ensure that the partners selected share the values and mission of the school district. Partners can support schools by providing them with: technical assistance, training, funding, and political support. 

5.  Measure effectiveness:
One of the most important things a school district/community needs to do is to find a way to measure the effectiveness of their programs, policies, and practices.  If a district can’t do this, they can’t expect to find support (financial or otherwise) from the community or from a governmental entity.

*A more comprehensive view of the SS/HS Initiative can be found at: