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Therapy Partners Executive Director Beth Roberts, accompanied by her dog, Sutton, explains the benefits of therapy dogs to the board. (Record Photo/Kendyl Hollingsworth)

Madison school board considers Jacob Kits and therapy dogs at Dec. 11 meeting

MADISON — Students’ safety and wellbeing were the primary focus of the Madison City Board of Education’s regular meeting Dec. 11.

Madison Fire and Rescue’s Capt. Russ Kennington kicked off the presentations portion of the meeting by explaining a partnership between the Fire Department and the schools to put “Jacob Kits” in each classroom and area within the school system that might see a high volume of students, such as cafeterias and gymnasiums.

“To achieve [community] resiliency, communities are charged with assessing each risk and creating programs and policies to prevent, protect, mitigate, respond to and recover from that risk,” Kennington noted.

Through community resiliency and national preparedness work, as well as participating in school shooting training with the Madison Police Department, Kennington said it became apparent that there was continued risk within the response system that needed to be addressed to “efficiently mitigate a school shooting.”

One of the primary risks identified in the face of school shootings was the delay in treatment, according to Kennington.

“No matter how many times the shooting drill was conducted, and no matter how efficient we were in responding, there was always a significant time gap between when a student may be wounded and when a trained emergency medical technician may be by their side,” Kennington said.

With a child’s blood volume being about half of an adult’s on average, he also noted how critical it is to get care to those in need to stop the bleeding as quickly as possible. With that, the Madison Professional Firefighters Association and Madison Fire and Rescue called for the schools to address this risk by implementing a Jacob Kit program to equip and train teachers to mitigate a school shooting. These Jacob Kits, Kennington explained, are small trauma kits named after a 6-year-old child who died from blood loss after a school shooting in the Carolinas.

The kits would cost about $50 each and contain items such as a tourniquet, chest seal, bandages, trauma shears and medical gloves. Firefighters would train teachers and staff on how to use these items and “stop the bleed.” The MPFA would solicit funding from the community to implement and maintain this program.

“It’s a very somber topic, and it’s not something we want to talk about, but no different than anything that we do to take care of our kids—we’ll do it,” said Superintendent Robert Parker.

Following Kennington’s presentation, two members of Therapy Partners, an organization under Pet Partners, joined three Madison City Schools employees to explain the benefits of implementing therapy dogs in schools to help students deal with depression and anxiety.

“Over the years teaching, I’ve seen a drastic increase in the number of our students who suffer from anxiety and depression,” said Nicole Coker, a science teacher at Bob Jones High School. “In just the last year, I’ve had two student deaths—students that were in my classroom.”

With this increase, Coker said she and others have been working to “think outside the box” to come up with a program that would help students. Stefanie Cook, a counselor at Madison Elementary School, said she has seen several students suffering from anxiety and depression as well in her time at Bob Jones and Discovery. She explained that she has seen and heard of the benefits of therapy dogs and facility dogs in other schools, including meeting students’ needs beyond mental health.

“They’ve seen such an increase not only in test scores, but they’ve seen discipline go down, and they’ve seen that their kids are [building their self-esteem and confidence].”

Sonja Griffith, a counselor at Bob Jones, said something she noticed in her needs assessment last year was how much stress and anxiety affects not only students, but teachers and parents as well. She began to look into how she could implement a therapy dog to help with these issues. In one day, she saw numerous students come to see her for a wide variety of problems they were facing.

“We have all these resources and tools we’re trying to use,” Griffith said. “I’ve got spinners. I’ve got Play-Doh. We’ve got music. We’ve got quiet space, but any other tool we can use to help these kids make it through the day is something I think is worth investing in.”

If implemented, the dogs would have a handler and stay confined to the therapy room during the hours they work. Cook said parents would have the opportunity to sign a waiver allowing their child to participate in the program if the child desires.

According to the handlers and school employees, therapy dogs can also help some students increase their grades. For young, elementary-aged children, the therapy dogs can help particularly with their reading scores. Mary Graham, a member of Therapy Partners, works with the program’s Partners Achieving Literacy (PAL) initiative to use therapy dogs like her dog, Nellie, to help young students struggling with reading.

“What we have found is that a lot of times if a child is struggling as a reader, they’re hearing a lot of things about what they’re doing wrong,” Graham said. “… We bring in books, and [the students] get to pick out a book, and they read to Nellie. Now, Nellie never tells them they’ve done it wrong. Nellie never judges them.”

When necessary, Graham said an adult who is present might kindly suggest that the student try reading something again because the dog might “look confused.”

“It’s a nonjudgmental listener and a couple of adults that work with the children, and what we’ve found is that their reading scores go up,” she added. “It’s proven to be effective, at least in the Huntsville City Schools.”

According to Beth Roberts, executive director of Therapy Partners, the dogs are insured, extensively trained and go through HIPA regulations. The handler keeps the dog on a leash at all times, though the handler does stay out of the way when children come to spend time with the dog. In addition to schools, many dogs in the program also work at places like Huntsville Hospital and assisted living facilities.

“Studies have proven that animal therapy does reduce anxiety and depression, and that’s what we’re all about,” Roberts said.

A facility dog is a rescue dog trained to respond to more than 50 commands and to recognize children who need help the most. Facility dogs must go through recertification each year to make sure they are up to code and are ready to work with children. The dogs also have a guardian and multiple handlers in case the guardian must be around others who cannot be around the dog.

For more on Therapy Partners and their mission, visit therapypartners.org.

Melissa Mims presented to the board the schools’ procedures for considering student acceleration. Mims explained that these procedures have been in place but are occasionally updated. The last time the procedures were looked at was 2012-2013.

Response to instruction (RTI) is “an instructional framework of an integrated system connecting general education, gifted education, supplemental services and special education to provide high-quality, standards-based instruction matched to students’ needs,” according to Mims. RTI plans are developed to meet the individual needs of students by providing differentiation, and if the differentiation strategies are not considered effective, other options may be explored with either subject or whole-grade acceleration.

For example, the RTI team may consider subject acceleration when differentiation strategies implemented within the classroom are not deemed most appropriate for the student in a particular subject. In contract, whole-grade acceleration may be considered when strategies are not effective across most subject areas.

“If acceleration is not recommended, the RTI plan will be continued, monitored regularly and revised as needed,” Mims added.

At the elementary level, gifted program specialists may be involved in the differentiation discussions and may consult with the student not already involved in the gifted program. Parents may appeal any decisions made. The RTI team develops a strategic acceleration plan for the student after parents approve the decision.

The board approved all action items on the agenda. One of these items included a bid for the board to help Bob Jones make certain upgrades, the primary being turfing for baseball and softball. The school formally asked to borrow a “substantial amount of money” in October, according to Parker.

“This is going to be completely paid back by Bob Jones High School’s athletic program,” Parker said. “The board of education is not paying for turf on Bob Jones’ baseball field or softball field.” Parker added that the baseball and softball programs will be the ones working to raise money to pay back the loan.

Other notable business action items approved include the October 2018 financial and bank reconciliation statements, as well as the October 2018 budget amendment.

The board also recognized a generous donation of $100,000 from the Alpha Foundation to be put toward the safety and security fund. Parker expressed his excitement and gratitude to the Alpha Foundation for the donation.

“I don’t know how to say thank you enough to the Alpha Foundation for doing that for us, but that money will be spent for the safety and security of our children to be put toward the things that we have said that it would go toward, which would include school resource officers, mental health counselors and any physical facility we may need to do anything we need to do to help upgrade the safety and security for our children,” Parker said. “There’s nothing that comes before that.”

“The end of the year is fast approaching, and as others might want to think about charitable donations for the end of 2018, there is still a need,” added Board President Ranae Bartlett. “The fact that we set up a fund online and articulated what this need was and how much we needed, that caught the attention of the Alpha Foundation, and that is why we are the recipients, and we are very, very grateful for them for thinking of our students and our community, and we continue to solicit funds for this very important purpose.”

In board comments, board member Luis Ferrer communicated his love for Madison Elementary’s recent cultural night and mentioned how much he learned through his participation in the event. Board member Connie Spears also expressed her joy participating in the Amazing Shake competition at Mill Creek Elementary Dec. 10. Bartlett commended Spears for her recognition at the AASB convention, where Spears received an award for her service on the AASB board.

“We were able to celebrate Mrs. Spears’ service,” Bartlett said. “You all know what she does for AASB and for our school system when she goes to Montgomery to fight for our kids, and so we were so pleased to be there with her to celebrate her service.” Bartlett was then the first to give Spears a standing ovation.

Board Vice President Tim Holtcamp touched on a policy meeting he held with board member Travis Cummings and several others that covered foreign exchange procedure changes and dual enrollment policy changes. The latter policy changes will be brought before the board soon for a reading, Holtcamp noted.

The next regular board meeting will take place Jan. 10 at 5 p.m. Meetings take place in the board room at the central office, which is located at 211 Celtic Drive in Madison.

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