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Don't Give Teachers Guns. Invest More In School-Based Mental Health Services

A woman cries during a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Wednesday shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018.  (Gerald Herbert/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
A woman cries during a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Wednesday shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

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In the wake of the deadliest school shooting in the United States since 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., a grieving nation is struggling to make sense of another act of mass violence in an educational setting. There is little disputing that such violence in schools — the sites that harbor our nation’s children — has become an epidemic.

While politicians call for increased security as the best measure to stop the violence, these reactive efforts offer little more than a band-aid to the herniating national crisis of children’s mental health that lies at the heart of the problem. No amount of buttressing will defend against the affliction that already resides within the walls of our schools.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that approximately 20 percent of U.S. students struggle with mental health issues ranging from anxiety and depression to substance abuse and suicidality. Further, the CDC-Keiser study of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) suggests that 1 in 5 school children have experienced three or more traumatic stressors, such as abuse, neglect, violence at home or exposure to parental drug use or mental illness.

We can better inoculate children against turning to violence by creating schools in which students feel safe and supported

In the face of an outbreak of the flu or other pandemic, public health officials offer a vaccine as protection, a physical treatment to prevent the spread of a potentially deadly illness, bolstering the immune system before the virus can take hold. If we, as a nation, want a preventative solution for the epidemic of school violence, we need to invest our resources in providing increased mental health services to children in crisis in our public schools.

As it stands, the vaccine to violence prevention is in short supply.

Currently, those tasked with responding to the mental health needs of children, including school nurses, counselors and psychologists, are overburdened, limiting their ability to provide services and connect with children in crisis. School psychologists -- who play a critical role in creating a positive school culture, initiating crisis prevention, identifying struggling students, and counseling students — face significant challenges, particularly in the school districts with the highest number of children in need of mental health support

In Boston, the number of school psychologists hovers around one for every 1,000 students (the ratio decreases in wealthier districts in Massachusetts). While this exceeds the National Association of School Psychologists’ recommendation of one school psychologist per 500 to 750 students as a minimum, it is far lower than the ratio in many states, which can topple 2,000 to 3,000 students per single school psychologist.

As children’s mental health issues often manifest as physical symptoms, including stomach aches and headaches, school nurses play a critical role in identifying students in crisis, and yet, less than half of public schools in the U.S. employ a full-time school nurse. Such conditions leave critical players in issues of school mental health overworked and under-resourced and cripple communication about students in need of mental health support.

School counselors, psychologists and nurses have specialized training to address the psychological health needs of students. But all school personnel serving children — from the bus driver who sees a child on the way to school to the teachers, custodians, coaches, librarians and food service providers who interact with a child throughout the day — should be prepared to identify students at risk and seek appropriate resources.

Principals, administrators and school boards should be trained in children’s mental health needs to avoid setting policies, such as automatic suspensions and zero-tolerance rules, that put kids with mental health needs at greater risk. Best practices in establishing safe schools call for a multi-tiered approach, providing universal mental health screening and education for all students and increasing support for students identified as needing help.

A clear pattern has emerged in the perpetrators of school shootings: all are males, less likely to seek out psychological support than their female peers, often bullied, suffering from mental health issues, isolated or depressed, have experienced loss and have been identified by schools for acting violently. These are all children in crisis with unmet mental health needs.

Inadequate access to mental health services in our schools is only one answer to the epidemic of school shootings. Certainly, a culture that condones violent masculinity, stigmatizes mental health, and affords easy access to firearms all play a part in outbreaks of school violence and warrant immediate action.

A clear pattern has emerged in the perpetrators school shootings ... These are all children in crisis with unmet mental health needs.

However, building bridges rather than barriers offers a systemic remedy to this crisis. Fighting an epidemic takes time, money and education, and schools offer one of the best sites in which we can being such treatment.

We can better inoculate children against turning to violence by creating schools in which students feel safe and supported, are able to recognize signs of mental distress within themselves and in others, and can identify a trusted adult and ask for help.

We need adults who interact with children on a daily basis not armed with weapons, but with the ability to respond effectively to students in need.

Politicians who call for spending critical resources on “increased security” will, ironically, only diminish students’ feelings of safety in school. Instead, the best protection against future violence begins with increased funding for school-based mental health services that identify and support vulnerable children before a crisis occurs.

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Erin Seaton Cognoscenti contributor
Erin Seaton is a writer and lecturer in the Department of Education at Tufts University.

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