In the wake of the recent Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida the national debate on how to prevent another school mass shooting quickly turned, as it has in the past, to the issue of gun violence and the place that guns should or should not have in our society. This an important issue that will continue to receive attention as we saw with thousands of school children walking out today to protest school violence. The point of this post is not to debate that issue. However, school safety is one of the most critical issues we need to solve and so I want to share 5 proven approaches we as parents, teachers, mental health professionals, and a united community, can take to improve school safety and tackle the core issue that’s increasing mass violence in our schools.
But first consider this: 20 percent of K-12 students in the United States are suffering from a mental health issue (e.g., anxiety, depression, trauma and many others). And yet, nearly 80% of children that need mental health therapy services do not receive the care they need. As this 20/80 number sinks in, consider these other alarming statistics:
Sources: National Institute of Mental Health. www.nimh.nih.gov
We know that mental illness was present in mostly, if not all, the perpetrators of recent mass school shootings. Is mental illness the problem? Not entirely because there isn’t a one to one correlation between mental illness and violence. Not all those who suffer from mental illnesses commit violent crimes. In fact, the majority of those suffering from mental illness are often themselves victims of violent crimes. But we can’t deny that mental illness has been a part of these shootings.
Given this, where do we go from here?
The recently signed Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act is a step in the right direction. From a mental health standpoint, the bill calls for:
Providing every Florida student with access to a mental health professionals
Mandating every school have a multi-disciplinary threat assessment team
Providing crisis intervention training for school resource officers
Expanding mental health services for youth and young adults with early or serious mental illness.
There are other proven steps being taken across the county to improve school safety, including social and emotional learning, restorative justice, wraparound mental health services, networks of referrals, and improving parenting skills. Together, these approaches provide a holistic school intervention framework that can improve overall school safety. Here’s a bit more on each of these school safety intervention components.
Social and Emotional Learning
Unfortunately many children are arriving to school with heavy emotional loads ranging from conflict at home, bullying on and offline, peer pressure, academic stress, and bombardments of media messages. At its core, social and emotional learning (SEL) is about raising both self-awareness and the ability to self-regulate in order to help students better manage stress and relate emphatically toward others.
SEL programs have proven to improve not only academic performance but also emotional wellbeing. In a study of 213 school-based, SEL programs involving more than 270 thousand K - high school students helped reduced aggression and emotional distress among students, increased helping behaviors in school, and improved positive attitudes toward self and others.
Here is an example of Valor Collegiate Academies in Nashville implementing SEL on campus
As the body of evidence continues to grow and experts all around confirm the benefits, the adoption of SEL based curriculum across schools is gaining momentum. In late February, the California Department of Education released new guiding principles for teaching social and emotional skills. According to the California’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson these principles are intended to improve students’ social and emotional wellbeing.
“ … science confirms that learning is not only cognitive, but also social and emotional. These principles are a part of a concentrated effort to improve teaching and learning of social and emotional skills by recognizing that students’ connection to what they are learning is a critical component of a quality education.”
Restorative Justice is about promoting positive discipline in schools by helping school children learn from their mistakes instead of resorting to punitive punishment as a first response. The focus is on creating a positive, safe school climates. One of the best ways to understand the difference between restorative justice and the widely used zero-tolerance disciplinary-based policies is to look at the Schott Foundation’s Tale of Two Schools:
Restorative Justice is an important alternative to zero-tolerance education system especially because zero-tolerance policies have failed to do what they were intended to do, make our schools safer. After evaluating school disciplinary policies for 10 years, the American Psychological Association (APA) Zero Tolerance Task Force, confirmed that zero-tolerance policies do not make our schools safer. The APA further concluded that:
zero-tolerance policies may make schools less safe, because schools with higher rates of suspension and expulsion “appear to have less satisfactory ratings of school climate, to have less satisfactory school governance structures, and to spend a disproportionate amount of time on disciplinary matters.”
The Schott Foundation further affirms that zero-tolerance as an approach hurts the relationship between teachers and students and doesn’t help students address their issues.
The practice of restorative justice is most effective when implemented across the classroom, school campus and the community. These are the five major restorative justice practices:
Address and discuss the needs of the school community
Build healthy relationships between educators and students
Reduce, prevent, and improve harmful behavior
Resolve conflict, hold individuals and groups accountable
Repair harm and restore positive relationships
You can learn more about the practice of restorative justice and how to implement it through the Schott Foundation’s Restorative Practices tool kit.
Wraparound Mental Health Services
Commonly referred to as wraparounds, wraparound mental health services have been around since at least the 1980’s. The approach is simple yet powerful. The way I like to think about it is to imagine a heard of elephants surrounding a calf in the presence of danger.
The wraparound goal is to literally wrap a child with support in all aspects of his or her life to stabilize him or her and ensure they can overcome whatever mental and or behavior issues he or she may be going through. Although wraparounds are widely used with at-risk kids, the approach can benefit other school children as part of an early intervention strategy. Combined together, SEL, Restorative Justice, and wraparounds provide a powerful approach to improve our kids’ school safety.
The National Wraparound Initiative offers a collection of articles, tools, and resources to learn more on this topic.
Networks of Referrals
This is essentially the school’s support network for mental illnesses. A qualified referral network is a must for schools. When constructed properly, the network can provide teacher training, screening tools, mental health literacy for students, access to treatment options and experts, and crisis response in case of emergencies. A well-established referral system can ensure that services are coordinated and students receive the help they need.
Improve Parenting Skills
If you’ve made it this far in this post (congratulations!) and you happen to be a parent, I ask that you please consider your parenting approach as part of improving our school safety. Consider the findings from a study titled, Looking for the Hannibal Behind the Cannibal: Current Status of Case Research, which concluded that extreme forms of parenting may be turning our kids into criminals. Before you throw your mouse at me, I agree, parents are not to blame for everything a child does later in life. To bring this study into perspective and how it plays into school safety, the study’s primary author explains the type of parenting that’s been a part most often in criminals.
“If you think of a scale of parental care that goes from nothing, the absence of care, all the way to the totally obsessive parent, most parents are in the ‘middle’.
The same applies to how we feel about parental control.
On a scale from ‘not caring’ all the way to ‘totally controlling’, most have parents who end up in the middle.”
But it is different for psychopaths.
More than half of the psychopaths I have studied reported that they had been exposed to a parenting style that could be placed on either extreme of these scales.
Either they lived in a situation where no one cared, where the child is subjected to total control and must be submissive, or the child has been subjected to a neglectful parenting style.
Put simply, there are three types of parents: Authoritarian, Submissive/Passive and Authoritative. As a parent you want to fall in the Authoritative type of parenting, where your child is being parented with rules but not too many that they rebel against you or society. Submissive parents, tend to be too lax and don’t pay attention to their kids, resulting in kids not feeling loved or payed attention to. Both extremes can produce children who rebel or feel lost in the world.
Let’s continue to tackle the core of violence in our schools by starting in our homes. Let's surround our kids with a team of supporters like teachers, administrators and counselors as a heard of mature elephants protecting their young.
Note: Contact or email me if you need your school to be trained in any of these methods and approaches to improve school safety.
Many times I’ve asked myself what more can I do to protect our kids. This post is my small contribution in addition to the mental health school training I provide. I hope you found the post useful and encouraging. If your son or daughter is struggling with a mental illness, I would love to see how I can help. Please contact me at email@example.com