by Lauren Rose and Josette Saxton - Updated June 14, 2018
Following Governor Abbott’s release of his school safety plan, the Legislature, state agencies, school districts, and other Texans are now weighing his proposals and determining how to move forward. This blog does not attempt to address all the important issues discussed in his plan or by other stakeholders. However, drawing on our experience and research on childhood mental health as well as school discipline, we have outlined below three key considerations that should inform this discussion.
Building on the Governor’s proposal and other efforts, the state and schools should boost support for student mental health.
Addressing the needs of students with mental health challenges and supporting the mental well-being of all students helps prevent violence, including bullying, but it’s not only about preventing violence. Before the shooting in Santa Fe, the Legislature had already shown interest in student mental health efforts because they improve behavior, boost academic performance, prevent suicide, reduce suspensions, and more. And remember, people with mental health challenges are more likely to be the victims of violence than to commit acts of violence.
Gov. Abbott is right that schools need more mental health professionals. Schools don’t have enough counselors, social workers, or other mental health professionals. And oftentimes the counselors who are on campus are busy with test administration, college counseling, or other duties that prevent them from working with students with mental health needs.
The state also needs to help school districts implement campus-wide practices that create safe and supportive school environments and help kids learn and practice skills for effectively managing conflict, anger, anxiety, and more. Efforts to address student mental health must go beyond services for those with the most visible and acute needs. According to the most recent DSHS youth survey data, an estimated one out of every ten Texas high school students attempted suicide in a single year, a shocking statistic that points to how widespread student mental health challenges are. Indeed, the Secret Service's analysis of school threats points out that "targeted school violence is arguably only the tip of the iceberg of pain, loneliness, desperation, and despair" faced by many students (see page 11). The use of trauma-informed practices, positive behavior interventions and supports, restorative discipline, and other evidence-based models address the whole iceberg. They enhance the critical skills outlined above, reduce violence and misbehavior, and help kids succeed inside and outside the classroom. They also help create an environment in which students feel safe and supported and are therefore more likely to reach out to an adult if they or someone they know is at risk of committing a violent act.
One way the state can help is by establishing a state center focused on student mental health, behavior, and school climate, similar to the current Texas School Safety Center. The School Safety Center, housed at Texas State University and funded by the state, is a central location that school districts can turn to for research, training, and technical assistance on school safety and security. To ensure schools are safe and supportive, ISDs also need to know where they can turn for guidance on partnering with community-based mental health providers, implementing the campus-wide practices described above, and more.
The Governor’s plan provides some helpful proposals, but legislators and others can also build on other Texas efforts and ideas. They can look to the work of the Hurricane Harvey Task Force on School Mental Health Supports, the work of the House Public Health Committee, legislation considered last session, efforts by individual school districts to address mental health, and our recent report on ways Texas can better support student mental health.
On rare occasions, a student in crisis should be removed from the classroom for safety reasons, but Texas must closely examine the process and risks.
State leaders and schools must ensure that effective tools and protocols are in place to make those important decisions. If a threat of violence is suspected, a multidisciplinary team, typically consisting of school administrators, law enforcement, and mental health professionals, should use evidenced-based threat assessment to distinguish threats that are credible from ones that aren’t. There must also be clear pathways to make sure the student in crisis gets the right treatment and services in the least restrictive setting as appropriate. Once the crisis has been resolved, schools should work with the family and mental health providers to help the student transition back into their school as quickly as is safe and appropriate.
The Legislature should closely examine the how students are removed for safety reasons, including through the Telemedicine Wellness, Intervention, Triage, and Referral Project that Governor Abbott seeks to expand. The Project’s potential to screen and provide treatment to students in need is appealing, but the Legislature needs to be sure the Project is providing services, in the right place, and at the right time. Children and families should have access to a spectrum of effective, community-based services and supports provided within the least restrictive settings that are clinically appropriate. The Legislature should examine how well children fared after receiving services as well as review the data on removing students from class, the removal process, and the risks before the Project is expanded.
Removing a student can create risks for the student — and for campus safety. In many cases, removing students from the classroom can marginalize and socially isolate them in a way that worsens mental health challenges and makes it more difficult to connect them with services, supports, and experiences they need to be healthy and well. It can also place him or her in the school-to-prison pipeline and increase the likelihood of dropping out of school.
The state must avoid a return to the “zero tolerance” approach to student discipline. We applaud Texas legislators for the work they have done over the last decade to reform and improve school discipline and policing practices, moving away from the zero tolerance approach that took hold nationwide in the 1990s. Research tells us that zero tolerance policies and disciplinary practices that remove a student from their classrooms are not effective at making schools safer or changing behavior and can actually make it worse. Any disciplinary response that is taken should work to rebuild relationships and repair the harm that has been done while also holding students accountable.
For the sake of police and students, Texas should limit the role of school police to law enforcement activities.
Without a clearly defined role and protocol for staff contacting them, teachers and administrators are more likely to call on school police to handle minor misbehavior that traditionally was handled in the classroom. Bringing police in to handle minor misbehavior — such as a student not putting his cell phone away — can not only have negative consequences for students; it also places police officers in compromising situations where they are expected to use their law enforcement authority and training for non-law enforcement situations. While there have been horrific shootings at schools such as Santa Fe High School, it is rare for violence to take place at schools. As a result, school police officers are often left with little to do within their traditional law enforcement roles, underscoring the need for the state to proactively define their roles and avoid “mission creep.” In fact, the National Association of School Resource Officers states that it is important to "[p]rohibit SROs from becoming involved in formal school discipline situations that are the responsibility of school administrators.”
Students run a higher risk of being arrested for minor misbehavior when school police officers’ roles extend beyond law enforcement due to the lack of violence and criminal activity in schools. School personnel may become frustrated by or misinterpret the behavior of students with disabilities. Drawing on the implicit biases we all have, school personnel may make assumptions about the behavior of students of color. (National research shows, for example, that adults perceive Black youth to be older and less innocent than white youth.) As a result, teachers or administrators may contact school police about these students’ minor misbehavior, placing them at risk of arrest and involvement with the justice system.
To ensure fidelity to the role defined for school police, the Legislature should also extend the state’s school police training requirement to include medium-sized and smaller school districts. Currently, police in school districts with fewer than 30,0000 students are not required to go through youth-specific training to help school police interact with the population they interact with every day.
For more on school police, see our recent testimony to the Legislature.