By Jean Conley
Amother’s heartbreaking story of her son’s years of drug addiction — and his death at age 20 from a heroin overdose — served
as a poignant beginning to a daylong event late last
spring that brought together educators, social and
health services providers, law enforcement personnel
and other community members to help them confront
some of the most troubling issues that schools face.
Ginger Katz, who lives in Norwalk, Connecticut,
founded The Courage to Speak Foundation after her
son’s death nearly two decades ago. She now travels
the country, putting her message in front of students,
parents and others: Society needs to “break the code
of silence” surrounding the abuse of drugs — legal
and illegal — that are taking so many young lives.
Katz, whose presentation was part of a Safe
School Summit in Worcester on May 28, stressed
that in order to successfully fight drug abuse,
communication — between teenager and parent,
parent and school, law enforcement and the judicial
system — is key. “Denial and deception are both part
of the disease,” she said.
The summit, the latest in a series around the
state, was held at Worcester State University and
focused on opioid addiction and gang activity.
District attorneys’ offices developed the idea of
holding the summits several years ago. The events
feature workshops and speeches that seek to open
up lines of communication, helping professionals
foster connections with young people, reach at-risk
students and assess and respond to threats and
violence in schools. Topics vary widely, from threats,
crisis planning and drug use to the concerns of
LGBT students and cyberbullying.
The summits have been gaining interest among
educators since the MTA received a three-year Great
Public Schools Fund grant for $194,000 from the
NEA to help develop and present them.
T he collaboration began in 2013 through the initiative of Jean Fay, president of the Amherst-Pelham Education Association and
a member of Northwestern District Attorney David
E. Sullivan’s Citizens Advisory Board. Fay, a special
education paraeducator, grew up in Newtown,
Connecticut, where 26 students and educators were
gunned down in an elementary school in 2012.
In addition, her mother was a paraeducator in
Fay immediately saw the need to include
educators in school crisis planning, so in 2013 she
asked the MTA to help with technical support and
scholarships for educators so they could attend a
Safe School Summit in Northampton.
The MTA provided in-kind services to register
participants and process payments, print materials
and award continuing education units; a grant
from the NEA Education Support Professional
Quality Department covered stipends for speakers,
registration fees and other costs.
The current NEA grant, which runs through
the 2016-17 school year, allows for expanded
collaboration with district attorneys’ offices around
Educators, Fay said, have helped shift the
conversation at the summits from more tactical
concerns — such as securing large spaces and
lockdown procedures — to meeting the needs of
children who are most at risk. Those discussions
bring in issues such as educational equity and
alternative disciplinary practices, which require
educators’ expertise about student behavior.
MTA educators participated in a number of
summits last year, including the one in Worcester. In
the current school year, the MTA will be involved in
six summits, partnerships for three of which are still
being identified. Plans are being made for six more
next year, along with a final statewide one.
Last November, the MTA teamed up with
the Northwestern DA’s office to present a Safe
Schools, Connected Kids summit in Holyoke. The
event focused on topics ranging from bullying
to youth suicide prevention, assessing students’
risks in schools, and building self-esteem through
Paul Lyons, a mental health counselor at
Amherst-Pelham Regional Middle School, offered
two workshops — on threat assessment and creating
school safety by developing strong connections
with students. He now plans to present on those and
related topics at MTA events and other professional
Lyons said that participating in the summit
allowed him to speak to professionals who don’t
routinely see emotional struggles faced by students,
as he does. Building trusting relationships with
students, he said, is “the doorway to safe schools.”
“If you have an open door,” he continued, “the
chances are much better that in a crisis, the student
will come to you. This adds one other layer of safety
The NEA grant also supported a Safe Campuses
Summit last fall that was sponsored by Sullivan’s
office, as well as a summit on assessing and
responding to school threats that was sponsored by
the office of Norfolk District Attorney Michael W.
Morrissey. The Worcester event was sponsored by
the office of Worcester County District Attorney
L en Zalauskas, president of the Educational Association of Worcester, said that the current opioid crisis in Massachusetts, which
killed more than 1,000 people in 2014, makes having
some understanding of the inextricably linked drug
and gang cultures essential for school workers.
“Gangs control the drug trade in Worcester,” he
said. “Drugs are nothing new here.” He pointed to
the fact that Worcester saw a need for a high school
specifically geared toward teens recovering from
drug and alcohol addiction.
District Attorney Sullivan said his office has
found an important partner in the MTA in trying to
make students, schools and communities safer.
“It’s everyone working together that makes for
a safe school environment. One of the ways we do
that is to bring many different disciplines together,”
he said. “The Safe School Summit idea is really a
building block for making positive change.”
Norfolk District Attorney Morrissey summed
up the value of having educators involved in the
“My father was a teacher, and my wife has
worked in the public schools for many years,”
he said. “I recognize that it is the teachers and
other professionals working in the building every
day who are best positioned to recognize when
something is not right. It is very important for
people in those positions to receive the training they
need to make those judgments and to make their
Visit www.massteacher.org/news/conferences for
registration information about upcoming summits.
Tina Gaffney, a
and a member of
spoke with presenter
Ginger Katz before
the May 28 summit.
helped shift the
conversation at the
summits from tactical
concerns to meeting
the needs of at-risk
Photo by Jean Conley