The horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida has sparked critical policy discussions about gun safety, safe schools, and other topics.
Governor Abbott highlighted the school safety discussion here in Texas last week when he directed TEA to take several steps to address school safety. Others have pushed for arming more teachers in Texas, an idea that Texas school police officers and many others have rejected. We expect Texas policymakers, education leaders, parents, students, and others to continue discussing ways to keep students safe over the course of this year and into the 2019 state legislative session.
As Texans consider the kind of physical security plans highlighted in the Governor's letter, efforts to address school safety must also include strategies to prevent students from pursuing violence in the first place — including the rare but horrifying school shootings as well as the much more common fights, bullying, and harassment that threaten student safety, learning, and physical and social-emotional health. Here are five areas that must be included in state and local efforts to make our schools safe and supportive.
- Work with students with challenging behaviors rather than rushing to suspend, expel, or otherwise ostracize them. Students can’t get the help they need when they’re not engaged with supportive adults. Schools should have processes in place to identify students who may be struggling with social, emotional, or behavioral concerns and connect them with school- or community-based services and supports. (Of course, besides the effect on student behavior, suspensions and expulsions also undermine learning by removing students from the classroom.)
- Create school environments where all students and teachers feel safe and supported. When students feel connected to one another and the adults in their school, they are more likely to share their safety concerns with them. Schools should teach students appropriate behaviors and social problem-solving skills and provide them opportunities to develop and practice those skills.
- Understand and address trauma and toxic stress that are present in student lives. Adverse childhood experiences like witnessing violence in school or at home, deadly hurricanes, abuse, neglect, and other causes of trauma affect student behavior, decision-making, and learning in ways that increase the likelihood that they act out – sometimes in violent ways – or become a victim of violence. The risk is particularly high if they lack a strong support system. They are also more susceptible to retraumatization when crises occur. Teachers, school police officers, CPS caseworkers, and others must be trained to understand and appropriately respond to childhood trauma to help children heal.
- Combat the stigma that continues to surround mental illness. It’s important to remember that individuals with mental illness, including kids, are much more likely to be victims of violence than they are to act violently. People with serious mental illness are responsible for only 3 percent of violent crimes. When students learn about mental health, they have fewer negative attitudes about mental illness, are more supportive of people experiencing mental illness, and are more likely to seek out help for themselves. It’s critical for schools to provide all students with safe and supportive learning environments and to help students struggling with social, emotional, or behavioral concerns connect to people, services, and supports that can help them.
- To support safe schools, we also have to look beyond our schools and ensure that the systems that shape the lives of students — especially students with challenging behaviors — are effective and work together. We need to make sure that students with social, emotional, or behavioral challenges get the help they need if they enter into the CPS system, the juvenile justice system, our community mental health services, Early Childhood Intervention (ECI), child care, residential treatment centers, and other programs and services that can be pivot points in a child’s life. We also need to ensure that these systems do not traumatize children. There has been progress in some of these areas. The Legislature passed laws to increase mental health screenings for adolescents enrolled in Medicaid and to ensure insurance companies treat mental health and physical health equally. State leaders have worked to strengthen foster care and CPS over the last year, though there’s more work to do. State leaders are also working on changing the ineffective model of large, remote state-run juvenile justice lockups. Unfortunately, ECI is one area where Texas has moved backwards following state cuts.
There are already some promising efforts underway in Texas to ensure more students have safe and supportive schools. The Texas Legislature and some school districts recently banned out-of-school-suspension for students in pre-k through second grade, with the Legislature endorsing the kinds of strategies implemented by those districts to effectively address student behavior. Last year the Legislature also authorized schools districts to develop practices and procedures regarding safe and supportive school climates, positive behavioral interventions and supports, trauma-informed practices, and early interventions for mental health challenges.
The state and school districts can do more to bring these positive behavior intervention and support strategies to more schools. Discussions during the 2017 legislative session and the state’s Hurricane Harvey Task Force on School Mental Health offer a foundation to start building a state plan to create safe and supportive schools and to support student mental health.
More information on what’s currently in place and further recommendations are available in our November 2017 report Student Mental Health After the Storm.
We look forward to working with state leaders and others on these important efforts to protect and support Texas students.