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Mental Health: The Cornerstone of Effective School Safety Measures

While calls for gun control in the wake of the Parkland massacre continue to stir debate, people from all political persuasions tend to agree that we need to do more to support student mental health.

Reports from teachers, administrators, and fellow students have led to questions over why more wasn’t done prior to the shooting, when the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School attacker, a former student, exhibited apparent behavioral problems–including violent outbursts–in school and at home.

The idea of increasing mental support services, in general, may have broad support, but schools, local communities, and states continue to wrestle with what specific strategies might help to mitigate student mental anguish and prevent further violence.

There’s no magic wand schools can wave to improve mental health in their classrooms.

In fact, considerations like funding, resource allocation, student privacy, and the stigmas associated with mental health, all make the implementation of effective and affordable mental health services extremely complicated.

Still, student mental health should be an important part of any school safety plan.

As districts work to improve their security protocols in the wake of the Parkland tragedy, here’s a few important factors they should consider.

Building support without stigma

As Education Week reports, one of the biggest fears among school mental health experts in the wake of the Parkland shooting is that the recent spotlight on mental health will exacerbate the negative stigma of students who face “emotional disturbances.”

Research shows that students enrolled in special education as a result of emotional disturbances are no more likely to carry out school gun violence than their peers. But stories like that of the Parkland shooter and the apparent failure by school officials and local law enforcement to address his apparent mental health issues may increase misunderstandings about mental health.

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With that in mind, Education Week outlines a few important facts about students with emotional disturbances that school leaders and community members should keep in mind:

  • While 6 percent of students with disabilities are classified as emotionally disturbed, that number is actually much higher. Students may have been diagnosed with another disability that includes emotional disturbances or they might not have been diagnosed at all.
  • Students with emotional disturbances struggle more than other special education students in several key areas, including lower graduation rates and higher dropout rates.
  • Despite arguments that new disciplinary strategies actually make it harder for educators to discipline students, students with disabilities face expulsion or suspension at a much higher rate than students overall–12 percent vs. 5 percent, respectively.
  • Students are often diagnosed with emotional disturbances too late, because some mental-health issues don’t emerge or aren’t properly diagnosed until adolescence.

Mental health screenings are vital

Given the impact that emotional disturbances can have on student success, and the difficulty of diagnosing these issues, experts say universal mental health screenings are the best way to ensure students get the care they need–and early enough to make a real impact.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently released new guidelines that call for yearly screenings for childhood depression starting at the age of 12.

More importantly, experts recommend that these screenings come in the form of private, self-reported questionnaires that allow students to answer sensitive questions without fear of stigma or ridicule.

Mental health is a community-wide effort

According to a report released last summer in the Journal of Community Health, less than 5 percent of gun violence involving K-12 students actually occur on school grounds.

Teenage violence, it seems, isn’t just a school problem. In fact, it’s a problem that all facets of a community–from law enforcement to health care professionals to parents–must tackle together.

As Dr. David Blaiklock–a former special education teacher and administrator and current director of research at K12 Insight (K12 Insight produces TrustED)–tells us in our podcast series on school safety, communities should rethink the role of schools in promoting strong mental health:

I think we need to start thinking of schools in terms of community hubs. And having them have a stronger connection to the community. Most schools in this country–you walk in them at 5:00, there’s something going on. We need to move our minds in the perspective that schools are open longer than we perceive them now–and that we are having that connection to the community. From that perspective, it is a matter of, ‘It kinds of takes a village.”

For Blaiklock, schools and communities must provide strong mental health services for their students while also developing systems for recognizing and preventing potential threats.

“The mental health component of this is absolutely huge. The history of those who have been active shooters in our schools, for the most part there have been substantial mental health issues. Being able to address that more appropriately on the front end, to be able to provide better treatment or better services to help do that, or having a risk assessment associated with it, may certainly be a better way to come at this rather than just waiting for it to happen and then reacting with policy.”

For more on how schools and communities can improve their school safety strategies, stay tuned for our upcoming podcast series on school safety.

How does your school or district screen for and treat student emotional disturbances? What sort of mental health services do you provide for students? Tell us in the comments.