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Lower Merion School District

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Building Belonging in LMSD: A letter from Dr. Yanni and Ms. James-Coles

October 24, 2023

Dear LMSD Families,

Over the past year, Lower Merion School District has worked on “Building Belonging” for all students and staff. This work goes far beyond the #LMSDBuildingBelonging hashtag you’ll see on our website and social media. What we understand about belonging has been shaped by decades of work that emerged from social psychology. A sense of belonging, particularly in school settings, has powerful, positive effects on students’ academic achievement and social development. It is a critical component of our educational and social-emotional work.

As a District, we must acknowledge that not every student and staff member currently have a sense of belonging at school. LMSD is not unique. We are not sure any district can assert accurately that everyone feels a sense of belonging within their K-12 walls. That is why our Leadership Team reflects often on what structures we need to create and sustain so that we can continually build belonging for everyone in LMSD.

Our reflections about belonging have been more fervent and frequent recently. Since the war broke out in the Middle East over two weeks ago, we have heard from LMSD families – Jewish and Muslim alike – who have expressed concerns about their children being bullied or harassed because of their heritage and religion. We know that this reticence and worry is contrary to building belonging at school. We hear you, and we want you to know that we take our role in providing physically and emotionally safe schools very seriously. Every student in LMSD has value and deserves the best educational environment we can provide. Our care for students transcends race, ethnicity, culture, religion, and so on.

We want to be clear with our community that we take all instances of bullying and harassment seriously, not just now and not just because of war in the Middle East. When these unwanted and unwarranted incidents occur, those who engage in bullying and harassment receive discipline per our Student Code of Conduct, and there are earnest attempts to bring about better behavior and relationships in accordance with our beliefs about Restorative Practices. We will continue to communicate about these incidents with those impacted, and the wider community when appropriate, to acknowledge what has transpired and to assure families that appropriate consequences have resulted.

Despite our best efforts, we cannot guarantee that misbehavior, including bullying and harassment, will not occur in LMSD. What we are doing, and what we will continue to do, is to sustain structures that promote positive environments and behaviors which, in turn, serve to foster a strong sense of belonging among our students. Examples of these structures include, but are not necessarily limited to: the implementation of Responsive Classroom strategies at the elementary level and Restorative Practices at the secondary level; cultural proficiency lessons, counseling and social-emotional supports.

In closing, please know that you will hear from us often throughout the remainder of this year and in the future about the work we are doing to ensure that every student develops a strong sense of belonging at school. We also want to reiterate that we take the safety of every student seriously, now and always. We thank our families and our community for the support of our work to make LMSD the best it can be for our students.

Sincerely,

Dr. Steven Yanni 
Superintendent of Schools

Ms. Shawanna James-Coles
Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging

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