School Climate & Safety Opinion

A Bold Proposal for Taking Mental Health Seriously in Schools

By Catherine A. Hogan & Laura F. Main — April 13, 2018 4 min read
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There is urgent need to protect the safety of all children in school. There have been more than 60 school shootings since the Sandy Hook attack in 2012, according to an analysis by TIME. Since the Feb. 14 Parkland, Fla., shooting, the Educators School Safety Network has recorded an increase in school-based violent threats across the nation: 50 threats per day on average. In the 2017-18 school year, there have been violent incidents or threats in 48 states to date.

Often, school shooters direct their rage at the schools they attend or attended. This does not suggest that our schools are to blame, but it can serve as a sign that a shooter’s experiences at school, clouded by difficult home experiences, mental-health issues, or other problems, provided an easy-to-access arena to take out their frustrations.

Up until now, many schools have treated students with mental-health issues reactively, rather than proactively. Too frequently, students’ behaviors may not be sufficiently chronic to warrant an out-of-district educational setting or even identification as a student who needs extra attention and services. These students walk school halls, often growing more isolated and angry from lack of acceptance by their peers.

In our experiences as a school leader and a licensed mental-health professional, we know that many students who receive treatment for mental-health issues outside of school are not able to get the same kinds of resources that they need in school. Because schools have no legal mandate to treat mental disorders, school providers of support-based mental-health services are not required to have a specific license for such treatment. Coordination with licensed community mental-health providers is often difficult to establish and maintain.

That’s why, in the wake of the Parkland shooting, we wanted to come up with a model for schools to identify and treat students with homicidal thinking early, thereby reducing the likelihood of harm to the school community.

While Response to Intervention, or RTI, is a widely used process for intervening when students experience academic difficulties, schools can also utilize it to service students who need urgent attention and might not have a special education or other high-need status to alert educators. RTI encourages early identification of students who are at risk for behavioral or academic problems.

Many students who receive treatment for mental-health issues outside of school are not able to get the same kinds of resources that they need in school."

In terms of identification, the students most at risk for causing harm are those who present some combination of signals, including drawing pictures or writing about harm to others, making verbal statements about hurting others (online or in person), assaulting other students for minimal slights, and disrupting the classroom process with outbursts. Some students may not be participating in school activities, not joining others at lunch, or walking alone between classes.

So what happens if a school’s RTI team decides that a student’s behavior warrants a threat assessment and uncovers potential danger to the school community? At this point, mental-health treatment is critical. We propose a mental-health safety program with evidence-based components as a viable option.

We created one such program using our combined experience with program development in the school setting and the treatment of homicidal patients in the clinical setting.

The program is a sustained clinical treatment process—that is, a coordinated mental-health approach between an out-of-school clinician who is treating the student and the clinician within the school program. Clinicians, teachers, and police officers who are assigned to the program, as well students’ parents, would meet together at regular intervals to review what students need most. Psychiatric consultation would be available as needed. School staff, community providers, and local law enforcement could refer their concerns to a mental health safety board for evaluation and disposition.

While our program is not yet in use anywhere, we would provide guidance for implementation for school leaders and staff. This would include strategies for communicating and interacting effectively with students in all areas of the program from entry to exit each day; teaching ways to help students with brain-based differences that affect their communication and learning develop social skills; setting meaningful agendas for the program’s daily schedule; and providing training manuals for specific areas of the program.

We believe this model will help students who demonstrate signs of homicidal thinking in the following ways:

• Offer a welcoming and focused learning environment for students who need to be removed from the social stress of the mainstream environment.

• Involve community mental-health and law-enforcement personnel, as well as psychiatric consultation, in an integrated and shared approach to in-school treatment.

All schools face the challenge of educating students on top of keeping them safe. School districts need cost-effective solutions to do so amidst this growing national problem. There is no time to wait.

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