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The “School Climate Solution” to Reducing K-12 Workers’ Comp Costs

Posted by William Grace Frost on January 11, 2017 at 11:45 AM

The physical and emotional well-being of employees is of vital importance to the success of K-12 schools, but the challenge of keeping school staff safe from harm is becoming more and more complex. As a result of rising grievances, the costs of Workers’ Compensation (WC) claims are sky rocketing. Rising claims and rising costs are the curse of school administrators who continually look for ways to reduce the probability of injuries happening on their campuses, and it’s also why risk managers embrace the saying – “the best Workers’ Comp claims are the ones that never happen.”

Making sure that claims never happen depends on any number of factors ranging from reducing hazards to surveillance videos to effective training and, according to the AMAXX Workers’ Comp Resource Center, “unsafe acts” contribute significantly to WC claims. In K-12 schools, those unsafe acts most often involve teachers intervening in student altercations or student attacks directly against teachers.

In a July 2015 U.S. Department of Education report addressing teacher victimization by students, the department cited more than $2 billion lost annually and lost work days approaching one million.

In a recent Risk & Insurance article, author David Godkin noted that “physical contact between students and teachers in one Minnesota school district had tripled over the past five years… and that 8 of 10 teachers nationwide report being victimized by students at least once in a school year.”

After nearly 20 years working with schools on climate improvement, Community Matters knows unequivocally that the most effective way to reduce school violence, including staff injuries, is by creating a culture of respect where the nurturing of positive staff-student relationships is of paramount focus, therefore minimizing unsafe acts.

The good news is that there is increased recognition among administrators nation-wide of the value, benefits and effectiveness of implementing school climate improvement plans. The current trends, research and legislation all highlight and promote the importance of school climate as a primary cornerstone and driver for improving safety and discipline resulting in the reduction of undesirable student behaviors that can lead to injuries.

So Where to Begin?

We know we can’t legislate civility nor can we punish children into being less violent. The only viable solution to the spread of students’ aggression towards teachers and peers is to change the social norms that allow it to occur. When school norms change from meanness and indifference to kindness, compassion and respect, that’s when vandalism, altercations, retaliations and other risk-related incidents go down.

Given our experience in providing support, training and consultation to more than 1,600 schools across the country, Community Matters has found the following to be the best practices leading to successful climate improvement and risk reduction:

  • Successful teachers and staff are those who put relationships first – taking the extra time to greet students by name, offering a kind word or smile, being “hall-friendly” and cultivating authentic connections with students. These actions pay off in students developing a stronger sense of belonging, less negative reactivity towards teachers, reduction in staff time spent on discipline and more time for teaching and learning.
  • Increasing student voice and utilizing a peer to peer role-modeling approach is the quickest, most cost efficient and effective way to change the social norms on campus and reduce bullying, fights and resultant teacher injuries. By identifying and training the socially-influential leaders in each of the campus cliques to set an example of courage and compassion in their words and actions towards others, over time the social acceptability of such negative behaviors can be eradicated.
  • Discipline needs to be focused on restoration rather than punishment – restorative practices include powerful tools and strategies that maintain connection, restore relationships, repair hurt and ultimately reduce altercations; disagreements can also be diffused well before they get to the point of a physical exchange when restorative practices are used effectively.
  • It takes strong organizational leadership to change the culture and climate of a school. Discipline procedures and practices are effective when all key stakeholders, from the administration and school board to the students, parents and staff, are included in the development and implementation of behavioral policies. If we want our students to be compassionate, respectful of differences and courageous enough to intervene, we must find our own courage first – the shift starts at the top.
  • Educational leaders, from school boards and superintendents to building administrators, must be willing to make an honest and comprehensive climate assessment of their school’s strengths, weaknesses, gaps and opportunities for improvement. Starting with a “deep dive” analysis will go a long way in ensuring that school climate improvement planning is built on accurate data and leads to measureable and sustainable results.

In the end, transforming school climate is the only real solution to engendering employee risk reduction and stemming the tide of spiraling claims. We take heart in knowing that shifts are taking place and that many schools are committed to school climate transformation. While there is still much work to be done, more and more schools are taking positive actions to ensure that students can attend schools where they feel welcome, safe, connected, and where the consequences and costs of Workers’ Comp claims are vastly reduced.