School Safety Commission's first field visit focuses on fostering community in schools

PHOTO: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a visit of the Federal School Safety Commission at Hebron Harman Elementary School in Hanover, Md., May 31, 2018.PlayJose Luis Magana/AP
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As President Donald Trump met with victims of the Santa Fe school shooting in Texas, representatives of the Federal Commission on School Safety, initiated in the wake of the Parkland shooting in Florida, held its first "field visit" at a Maryland elementary school Thursday.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the commission's chair, urged "prompt action" to amp up security and violence prevention programs in order to "foster a safe and supportive culture." In the wake of the deadly shooting at a Texas high school, the Department of Education awarded the Santa Fe Independent School District a "Project School Emergency Response to Violence", or SERV, grant for $1 million in aid for "healing and recovery", the department announced.

The meeting, hosted at Frank Hebron-Harman Elementary School, comes just a day after White House press secretary Sarah Sanders touted the commission's work in an emotional response to a 13-year-old journalist who told her he was worried his friends could get shot up at school.

“As a kid and certainly as a parent, there is nothing that could be more terrifying than for a kid to go to school and not feel safe, so I’m sorry that you feel that way,” Sanders said, her voice audibly cracking. "The school safety commission that the president convened is meeting this week again in an official meeting to discuss the best ways forward and how we can do every single thing within our power to protect kids in our schools and to make them feel safe."

During Thursday's event, there was little talk of the more controversial safety techniques that have come to dominate the headlines, like arming teachers or limiting school entrances and exits.

Instead, participants focused on how to use a technique called "positive behavioral interventions and supports," to foster community so kids wouldn't want to hurt their classmates.

"Students who feel connected to their school community are less likely to harm it," Kathy Rockefeller, a school climate specialist in Anne Arundel county, told officials. "Connection breeds safety."

"We create a school climate where everybody matters," said Angela Bernholz, a school psychologist at Old Mill High School who created an elective class that helps at-risk students build relationships with peers.

"These are kids who were not connected, but became connected — but it took us doing something," Bernholz said. "When we intervene successfully, we don’t know what might have happened."

Three of the four cabinet secretaries who make up the school safety commission — Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Homeland Security Sec. Kristen Nielsen, and Health & Human Services Sec. Alex Azar — sent surrogates to the meeting.

Beth Williams, Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Policy, represented the Justice Department; Elinore McCance-Katz, Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Abuse, represented the Department of Health and Human Services; and Christopher Krebs, the nominee for the Undersecretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate, represented the Department of Homeland Security.

The Department of Education declined to comment on the secretaries' absences. Other departments did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment.

Earlier this month, Sessions, Nielsen and Azar all opted out of another planned meeting due to "unforeseen scheduling conflicts" and DeVos met with stakeholders, including officials who have dealt with the fallout from the shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech, as well as parents of victims from Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland, alone.

The full commission has not met as a group since March, when all four secretaries gathered to discuss logistics, staffing, timeline, and scope, according to an Education Department readout.

Yet DeVos has said she is hopeful the commissions will issue findings by "year's end," with an interim report "hopefully" coming out before then.

On Thursday, she pledged further discussion with states, school districts, and school administrators.

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