School safety in America is an urgent problem requiring complex solutions. While the FAST® Program cannot solve this issue, FAST is able to promote a safer school environment by collaboratively engaging parents, schools, community agencies and law enforcement– and it has been doing so for more than 20 years.
In 1998, FAST was one of four effective approaches recognized by the White House Conference on School Safety – Causes and Prevention of Youth Violence.
This conference gave rise to the Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative, which initially allocated approximately half a billion dollars in total funds, over four years, to the development and implementation of violence prevention programs in 50 communities. This initiative also marked an “unprecedented collaboration” among the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Education and Justice. (Notably, all three departments have been involved in sponsoring and/or recognizing FAST as an effective evidenced-based practice.)
Communities which applied for funding through the Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative had to demonstrate local collaboration across police/justice, schools, families and communities in planning their own priorities for promoting school safety, according to Dr. Lynn McDonald. Each funded grant proposal involved multi-component approaches and evaluation, including evidence-based programs like FAST, to prevent violence and promote local safety.
The Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative was a prominent component to the government’s response following the tragic Columbine school shooting in 1999. Since then, the Initiative has provided “services to more than 13 million youth and has offered more than $2 billion in funding and other resources to 365 communities in 49 states across the nation,” according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
FAST has had a significant role in the Safe Schools/Healthy Schools Initiative throughout the years, beginning with initial funding in the late 1990s.
Pinellas County Schools in Florida was one recipient of these early funds. The district implemented FAST in partnership with a local mental health provider during the Fall of 1999 and the Spring of 2000.
According to Pinellas County’s evaluation of the program’s effectiveness with elementary school children, significant improvements in family cohesiveness, connections and assets were found, suggesting an increase in family activities due to FAST. Parents also reported more involvement in school activities, high satisfaction of the program, improved parenting skills and stronger relationships.
Recently (and closer to the home-base of Families & Schools Together, Inc.), the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, a 2013 grantee of the Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative, implemented FAST as part of an effort “to expand access to mental health services, target and reduce identified disparities for students, and expand the notion of effectively engaging and partnering with students and families in these processes.” FAST was one of eleven evidence-based practices and programs implemented throughout Wisconsin to create safer and healthier schools with support from this continued initiative (along with additional federal funds).
Participating Wisconsin schools saw, on average, a 37 percent “decrease in disparity between LGBTQ and heterosexual students in bullying on school property among middle school students,” as well as a 15 percent decrease in reported physical fighting in high schools. Additionally, over 1,400 individuals in Wisconsin received training to support students’ social, emotional and behavioral well-being as part of this initiative in 2015.
The Safe Schools/Healthy Schools Initiative, as a whole, “achieved its promise of making schools and students safer,” according to SAMHSA, which cited a five-year evaluation report released in 2013.
Yet increasing school safety concerns, especially in America, make apparent a need for better protection against risk factors contributing to violence (school, family and community), bullying at school and aggressive behavior of children and youth.
The FAST Program – a complex, social intervention involving multiple whole families, volunteers, experts and schools in a community collaboration – helps to reduce such risk factors by building protective factors through family engagement. Each after-school session of FAST includes an evening meal, music, laughing, time spent talking together, families and children playing together, and one-to-one responsive play between parent and child to build strong bonds and positive relationships.
FAST data shows the program increases children and parents’ social skills, parent-child attachment, parent social networks of support, parent-school involvement, and school and community social capital. In doing so, FAST helps to reduce bullying at school, family violence, social isolation and aggressive behavior of young children – in turn, promoting school safety.
Following the completion of weekly sessions, monthly reunions support ongoing building of a bonded school community needed to promote school safety over time.
While there is not one easy answer to ensure school safety, FAST is a promising program capable of helping to address school safety concerns.
This post was written in partnership with Dr. Lynn McDonald, Founder of Families & Schools Together and the FAST® Program; Grandmother of five wonderful young children; Emeritus Professor of Social Work, Middlesex University, London, UK; Emeritus Researcher, Wisconsin Center for Education Research, UW-Madison, USA.