District administrators are under immense pressure from parents to keep their children safe and are investing money in school safety initiatives. Communities have shifted from the belief that “it can’t happen here,” to doing everything they can to prevent it from happening.
Twenty years ago, the concerns about student safety were about preventing classroom misbehavior, physical bullying, fighting, and drugs. Now, it’s much more complex and the stakes are higher. We are literally talking about life and death issues for our students. What has changed in recent years to explain this increase in personal self-harm, suicide, and school violence?
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Although school shootings get the most attention and are usually perpetrated by a troubled student acting alone, something is causing a dramatic increase in mental health issues affecting our youth. It manifests itself in fighting, bullying, suicide, cutting, and mass shootings, but it stems from a place of fear–fear of not fitting in, fear of being different, fear of the future. And the fear is amplified by social media where young people see artificial perfection and judge themselves as lacking.
I believe these behaviors are caused by students feeling isolated, uncared for, and afraid. When human beings feel isolated and afraid, they act out either against themselves or their community. Whether or not technology is the cause, there is no doubt that this affects our students. What they need is someone to care about them and to help them navigate this stage of their lives. We must help them become the adults they are meant to be—healthy, capable, and ready for their future.
How we view the world shapes how we react to the world. And what we’re seeing is kids reacting to the world in unsafe ways. The single best thing you can do for a kid is to care about them and let them know you care. Teachers can’t always tell which students are struggling. Some of the kids who need help the most are the best at hiding that need. Teachers need training to understand how to spot students that need additional support.
Two approaches that help alleviate student isolation
Many districts are trying programs to get out in front of school violence before it happens. One way is to increase the number of counselors available to students. Even though the recommendation is 250:1, most schools average 350:1 or more. Even 250:1 is too high. The primary responsibility of most middle and high school counselors is to be college and career advisors. What schools need are counselors trained to identify students in crisis and who have the ability to provide the appropriate support. The schools and districts bringing in more mental health professionals are seeing clear results.
Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the other program that provides students with skills to manage their own behavior and emotional wellbeing. SEL teaches students about conflict resolution and how to see another person’s point of view. They learn how to understand their own negative thoughts and the limitations they are setting on themselves. Through SEL, students also learn empathy for others. Empathy decreases behavioral incidents, bullying, and improves school climate and culture.
Educators understand they need to get out in front of this trend before a tragedy impacts their school. It will devastate a school, the district, and the entire community. It’s not just about the suicides and the shootings. We need to understand what’s going on inside kids’ heads. The most important thing students should gain from school is a strong sense of self-esteem and efficacy. They should know they can make a difference in the world and that they can be happy. I believe a lot of kids are not coming out of school with a positive sense of identity. When you feel hopeless you resort to self-harm, suicide, or violence. Even if these feelings don’t result in a tragedy, it often results in a “Lifetime Lost” without fulfillment or plagued by mental illness.
A safety net for student safety
Student safety management platforms like Gaggle proactively identify kids in crisis and can help educators identify many items such as this note from a student to her parents: “Mom & Dad: Don’t blame yourselves for not knowing I was in this much pain. I was just really good at hiding my pain. When you are reading this, it will already be too late to save me. I will be long gone.” We must do more for these students.
We must recognize the looming student mental health crisis and embrace the call to action — let’s all become heroes for kids.