First day at Hulan L. Whitson Elementary School

The White Salmon Valley School Board approved Policy 0510b during the Aug. 22 meeting, which provides support to teachers and staff to better address social and emotional needs of students.

It has been five years since Gabrielle Gilbert launched her initiative to change disciplinary measures within the White Salmon Valley School District. During the Aug. 22 School Board meeting, the policy she has passionately advocated for came to fruition.

During the meeting, the School Board approved Policy 0510b, titled “Positive Social and Emotional School and Classroom Culture.” According to the policy draft, the policy is “guided by the fundamental belief that each and every school community member should be treated with dignity, should have the opportunity to learn, work, interact and socialize in physically, emotionally and intellectually safe, respectful and positive school environments, as well as the opportunity to experience high quality relationships.”

The policy draft sets a framework for district employees. Its intended goal is to “support and promote action plans that will create and/or sustain physically, emotionally, and intellectually safe learning environments that foster equity, social, emotional ethic and academic education.”

Gilbert first approached the board in 2014 to direct her concerns with the district’s behavioral policy. At the time, her son, then a student at Henkle Middle School, had nine detention slips, which she displayed in front of the board. She said her son would be given write-ups for what she called “silly stuff.”

One example Gilbert cited was when a teacher reprimanded her son for exchanging candy. She said her son, who now attends Columbia High School, was frustrated with the disciplinary process and no longer wished to attend school.

“That’s when we shut everything down,” Gilbert recalled. “Once [children with behavioral problems] are labeled, the smallest transgression creates a problem.” Gilbert cited her son’s struggles with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder) as having affected his behavior in school. Children with ADHD, which is listed by the American Psychiatric Association as being “one of the most common mental disorders affecting children,” often exhibit inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity.

“What we were fighting about was their equity of education,” Gilbert said. “How are they going to learn in a hallway?”

Gilbert calls the alternative methods to punitive measures “restorative justice.” She says restorative justice is a way to maintain communication and understanding about each party’s, including teachers’, students’ and parents’, perspectives.

The board tabled the proposal that meeting in December 2014. Gilbert continued to show up to the monthly meetings, missing what she says was a handful of times. She met with committees that included administration officials and board members throughout the process.

In 2018, Katrina Bretsch, who works as an educator for the People for People learning center in White Salmon, joined Gilbert’s cause, attending school board meetings and listening to the concerns of parents and people in the community.

Gilbert needed an ally from within the community of educators who could draft the proper language for a policy that could be taken to the board for consideration. She found one in Bretsch.

Bretsch said she drew inspiration from the best practices language that is included in John Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. She said it is one of the studies that teachers draw their strategies from. She collaborated with the findings in the study to determine what should be included in the policy draft. According to the study, teacher-student relationships have a greater effect on a student’s learning than homework does, for example.

Bretsch says teachers have many resources from which to draw strategies on managing classroom behavior. Some of the trainings offered to teachers include Safe Schools Video Training, PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports) Tiered Interventions and the more recently developed Trauma-informed strategies.

Superintendent Jerry Lewis says the policy shift is “a major change from what’s been in place for thirty years.”

“We’re going to learn a lot,” Lewis said about how the policy will play in the coming school year. Lewis said much of what was delaying action on the issue was gathering research on how to best implement the changes laid out in the policy.

Gilbert says she is not done fighting yet. She says she plans to take restorative justice to the state level.

State Rep. Chris Corry (R-Yakima) sits on the Education Committee and has unofficially signed on to evaluate what needs to be done regarding how school officials deal with students’ mental health in Washington. Corry said he looks forward to seeing how the policy develops over the school year. He said that he is looking into ways that will be collaborative with many parties involved.

“How do we build this and make it work at the state level?” Corry asked rhetorically during a phone call Wednesday afternoon.

He said he also wants policy that ensures “the safety and discipline for other students.”

Gilbert remains unsatisfied, calling the problem “widespread.” She says it’s a systematic problem that school administrations overlook youths who get into trouble or are otherwise misbehaving.

“I’m coming for your culture,” Gilbert said with a defiant tone.

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