Children in grades K-2 and 6-9 will take surveys to better assess their emotional wellbeing in class, which was a part of requirements for the district when receiving federal funding in the wake of COVID.
Towards the end of January, an email went out to Bristol Warren parents announcing the commencement of a new universal screening tool that would be administered to all students in grades K-2, 6-8, and all freshmen at Mt. Hope High School.
The Social, Academic, and Emotional Behavior Risk Screener (SAEBRS), is a social-emotional learning (SEL) screening tool that utilizes a survey to assess how students are functioning emotionally in the classroom in areas such as their interactions with their peers, classwork, and their general attitude and wellbeing.
While there has been no widespread blowback to the screening, a Facebook post authored by Tara Thibaudeau, the sitting School Committee Secretary and a parent of multiple children in the district, showed that there was at the very least some confusion and frustration surrounding the details and intentions of the program.
“I have had families reach out to me about the SEL Universal Screening (SAEBRS) being given to grades K-2 and 6-9,” the post from Jan. 30 reads, going on to discuss more about the details of who would be screened, and how parents could get their child out of taking the survey. “Parents do not have the option to opt out but can request the date of the screening and keep their child home or instruct their child not to complete the screening when it is given in class.”
How, when, and why the screening was implemented
The program was approved by the Bristol Warren School Committee this past October with little fanfare. Implementing such a screening tool was a requirement of the district receiving its nearly $2 million of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) funding during the last allocation cycle. This was because, in the wake of Covid, it was deemed necessary for districts to show an effort in their reopening plans on how to address the social and emotional wellbeing of students as they transitioned back to the classroom after many months of disruption and time isolated from their peers.
“We know empirically that academic achievement requires an environment where students feel socially and emotionally secure, but also able to take those intellectual risks in order for them to learn and flourish,” said Dr. Deb DiBiase, the Director of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support. “That means we need an environment in schools and classrooms where they feel seen and understood and know that they are included and cared for and supported.”
DiBiase said that being able to better assess the social-emotional needs of kids has become especially important post-Covid.
“When our kids were isolated working only on computers and staring at a screen, there was no social interaction, no reading body language, no communicating with someone in person, or being able to show compassion or empathy,” she said. “And we’ve seen it across the district. Our students almost needed to re-learn how to socialize. And those particular skills we’ve just been talking about are really important. Now they’re even more important.”
DiBiase said that the selection of the SAEBRS screening tool was done after the deliberation of many different support staff, including school psychologists and counselors, throughout the district.
Thibaudeau takes issue with mandate
In an extended interview on Monday afternoon, Thibaudeau said her underlying issue with the SEL screening is that parents do not get the option to opt their child out of being screened.
“My concern is that the parent should be the ultimate decider of these kinds of things,” she said. “I should never be told as a parent that something is mandatory and I don’t have a choice.”
Thibaudeau said that she has concerns about what becomes of the survey data after it is assembled, who evaluates the data, and how long that data is stored. She pondered what will happen to kids display so-called red flags in the survey down the line.
“Once you open that door, it never seems to stay shut,” she said.
Addressing this question, DiBiase said that the data would be kept confidential the same way that academic screening surveys, such as i-Ready (which have long been administered universally in the district), are kept confidential.
“We would follow student data privacy policies as we normally would,” she said. “The MTSS team, our social workers, school psychologists, and building administrators would have access to the school-wide data, but in that sense it’s looking at the data in terms of school-wide trends. If there are individual students that we want to look into a little bit further or we see flags that have been put out there, it could possibly mean an at-risk student and we invite the parents in.”
Thibaudeau said that while she saw some merit in the district examining the social-emotional wellbeing of kids, she believes that effort should fall on the responsibility of parents, and not the schools.
“I think I should be able, as a parent, to say that’s fine if other parents are comfortable with that, but I don’t want to do that and I don’t want that for my family. And I’m not saying that everybody has to agree with me,” she said. “When it comes to this I feel very strongly. My family is extremely important. I may mess them up, but it’s their father and I who are doing it. And we are ultimately responsible. Does the school really want to take on that responsibility and take that responsibility away from parents?”
Who is screened, and how that works
This year is a pilot program for SAEBRS, which DiBiase said will be given once in the winter and once in the spring, in May. It will be administered to students in grades K-2 and students in grades 6-9. The screening will be administered three times a year when it is fully implemented next school year.
The screening takes a dual approach, where teachers fill out a survey assessing the students, and students fill out a a survey themselves. The survey consists of straightforward questions with a ranking from “Never” to “Almost Always” — with the intention of assessing how often a student is having difficulties in three different areas of behavior (social behavior, academic behavior, and emotional behavior).
“If a flag is raised and the student shows they could potentially be at risk for one of these areas of behavior, the first step would be to contact the parent, review those results with the parent, of course, and then talk about what are the next steps,” DiBiase said. “It could be additional support at school with the parent’s approval, or they could take the info and see their pediatrician.”
Or, DiBiase confirmed, the parents could choose to do nothing with the information.
“It’s a screening, not a diagnosis,” she said.
DiBiase said that the screening was an important way to better understand the needs of students throughout the whole district, and therefore serve as an important source of data to implement better supports for students moving forward.
“Without information like this, you end up being reactive,” she said. “When a students is already failing academically or they’re already displaying disruptive behavior or behaviors that are not conducive for learning. One of the goals of this is to be proactive.”
Superintendent Ana Riley also addressed the merits of the program, and sought to address the concerns of parents who have asked about it.
“The intent is to try to capture the kids that fall through the cracks,” she said. “We know about the kids who are in crisis because we see the evidence. They have a little meltdown or have an issue at school where they let out their feelings and we know they’re struggling. But there are kiddos who are silently struggling, and we ant to make sure none of them fall through the cracks.”
Riley confirmed that no child would be punished for refusing to take the survey, and that no student would receive additional intervention without parental consent.
“Our counselors do not do individual counseling sessions without parental permission,” she said. “Individual counseling requires parental permission, and always has.”