I was at my national conference when 17 students were murdered at Stoneman Douglas High School. I didn’t really know how to react; it was easier to focus my attention on building my skills in school-based mental heath. I was thankful that in our underground conference rooms my internet access didn’t work and I could hide from the news. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, or didn’t realize it would affect me once I went back to my school district the next week. I was just overwhelmed with the reality of yet another school shooting. It felt more and more hopeless.
It’s a month later, and there has been so much conversation, and some action, about what should happen next. Students have spoken up, spoken out, and walked out. Adults have listened, sometimes. What finally prompted me to put together my thoughts was the new hashtag #walkup, where adults tell students to go up to a peer who sits alone, or isn’t picked for group projects in class. The sentiment is that if children and adolescents are kinder to each other, the stereotypical loner-turned-shooter won’t exist (which is a myth, by the way). I realized I had a lot to say, and it was time to speak up
We can do better than a hashtag. Below is what I think everyone can do to make schools safer. I’m focusing on what happens on campuses; while I have views on other related issues I am a mental health specialist, so that will continue to be my focus on this blog. I’m starting with those who should be held the least accountable for any violence that occurs on their campus.
- Keep standing up for what you believe in! It’s your school, it’s your safety on the line. Educate yourselves and speak up. Adults all over the world are listening.
- Treat everyone with respect. I never ask students to be friends with everyone, or to like everyone. Respectful behavior should the minimum. It means there is no bullying, no acting superior to someone else, and no rude or mean behavior. If someone is hurting, choose to be kind. If you are not comfortable walking up to someone, it is your right not to. If someone doesn’t make you feel safe, make sure an adult knows why.
- If you are worried about another person, tell an adult. The following situations are when an adult should be notified- someone is being hurt by someone else (their parents, significant other, a bully, anyone else), someone wants to hurt themself (thinking or talking about suicide), or someone has hurt or has threatened to hurt someone else. You should tell a trusted adult at school, like the school counselor, that you feel will be able to help the person being hurt or in danger of being hurt. If that person doesn’t believe you or try to help, you should find another trusted adult that will help. Remember, what you report will be confidential. This can still be scary, especially when reporting a bully or someone who may be violent. Trust your instincts and do what you think is best and will help others. You can talk to a friend or other trusted adult about the situation without naming names who can help you with your decision.
Teachers and School Staff
School staff should be aware of the students in their care. They should, above all, build relationships with as many students as possible. Why are relationships so important?
- Students who have one caring adult in their life have better life outcomes. If a child doesn’t have a stable home life, school is the place where they’ll be looking for that adult relationship.
- Relationships with school staff help students feel more connected with their school. If peer relationships are also strong, a student will feel invested in school and is likely to do well socially, academically, and behaviorally.
- By maintaining relationships with students, staff will be able to notice changes in their behavior or emotions. These changes could be minor and temporary, but a staff member with a relationship will be able to approach a student if they are concerned; ideally, the student will approach a trusted staff member if support is needed.
What if a teacher is having trouble building a relationship with a student? Maybe this student doesn’t seem to have friends, or seems socially awkward. Maybe the student gets in trouble, and is angry or upset a lot of the time. The teacher or staff member wants to do something, but isn’t sure what. Here are a couple suggestions.
- Talk to the student individually. Don’t mention your concerns, just try to get to know them. If you’ve noticed something about them (look at their binder to see if there are stickers or drawings showing an interest) use it to start a conversation. If the student isn’t interested, don’t force anything, just be a friendly face and try another time if they start warming up.
- Talk to the school counselor*. Bring up your concerns to the counselor and see if they know the student or have any information they can share. Remember that if the counselor and student do have a relationship, certain information will be confidential, meaning that unless it affects your work with the student you will only be told that they work together (if that much). If the student isn’t on the counselor’s radar, though, explain your concerns and if you think there may be a mental health need (if you do).
- Contact the parent. This recommendation is primarily for teachers, if efforts to connect are failing, or if there other concerns. In general, I recommend this a) if the child is younger (calling a parent over emotional, behavior, or peer issues after the elementary level is usually left to counselors or administrators), b) if you have specific concerns that you think might explained by learning more about the home (sleeping in class, for example) or other background information, or c) there is also an academic concern.
- Act immediately if a student is at risk of harm. If you think a student is being hurt by someone, is hurting or wants to hurt someone else, or is thinking of suicide, follow your school’s protocol for reporting your concern. If you are not sure what your school’s protocol is, ask someone on your campus immediately. If you are unsure how to interpret a student’s comment or action, the school counselor is often a good person to ask. For example, if an elementary-aged student has drawn pictures of violence, they may have witnessed violence at home, copying someone from a TV show or video game, or showing an interest in violence against someone. Each one of these will require a different response.
*School counselor or another mental health specialist on your campus if you have one, such as a school psychologist or social worker
School-Based Mental Health Specialists
School counselors, school psychologists, school social workers. We are the ones who are asked to counsel students who “look like school shooters”. After every incident there is talk of increasing mental health funding, whether or not the alleged assailant was diagnosed with a disorder. As with everything else that’s said after a major incident, the talk eventually dies down and there is no follow through. School counselor and school psychologists are working heavier caseloads than our national associations recommend.
So I have no tips for you, because I know how hard you work building relationships with students. I have no “here’s how to identify the next school shooter” training because it doesn’t exist. I just want us to keep advocating. Advocating for best practices in school safety. Advocating for more funding toward school-based mental health, so there can be more of us reaching more kids. Advocating for US.
Principals, superintendents, administrators at all levels, I know how much stress you are under running schools. I can’t even begin to imagine how these events affect you both personally and professionally. I know you have difficult decisions to make regarding school safety, and are getting pressure from many different groups. I won’t make this long. Just consider my recommendations.
- Build relationships with students and parents. Get to know as many students and parents as possible, no matter how large your campus or district is. Learn what they care about, what they are concerned about, and what they feel would help them feel safer.
- Build relationships with staff members at all levels. If you are a principal, get to know every staff member well enough to understand what makes them successful at their job, and what they feel would make them even more successful. If there is something that could be done at the campus or district level to improve safety, find out what it is and advocate for that change. If you are at the district level, meet staff members at all levels. Get to know enough teachers, school mental health specialists, and custodians to know what they need from you. Talk to your principals to see if what you have learned is true across every campus.
- Think about more than just academics. When you make your budget, think beyond test scores. Think about those relationships, and everything you know about what will make your students successful not just academically, but socially and emotionally. If your students are in good mental health, they will be successful academically. When deciding what to do about the big school safety questions, listen to experts, and listen to your schools and community.
- Advocate for laws that will improve your schools. If there is a law at the state or federal level that will improve the way you educate your students, speak out. If there is a law that will make things more difficult, speak out. This includes laws about school safety, school-based mental health, students with disabilities, and anything that will affect the well-being of students.
Parents, Community Members, Friends
I wrote this article for those who learn and work in schools, but for those for end up here who are not in schools for 8 or more hours a day, we need you too. Listen to the words of those who live and breathe education. Students. Teachers. Administrators. School counselors, psychologists, and social workers. Educational researchers. Ask us what will make schools safer. What will make more children grow up mentally strong and able to handle the world. What will help children love each other more. Listen, and then advocate. Talk to your legislators. Vote. Join in activism where you feel comfortable, where your values lie.
I don’t have all the answers to these questions. No one does. I just listen to my students first, and my school staff, and my training on how to keep schools mentally healthy. I don’t want anyone to walk into a school and be afraid. Let’s work toward that goal together. Our children should never have to feel that way again.