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Mental Health and Safe Schools

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The term "safe school" has become another of those terms that means many things and can be narrowly or widely interpreted. Physically safe school has always meant protecting students from physical danger.  If you were in schools in the 1950's and early 1960's in addition to fire drills, you may remember duck and cover drills.  Getting under a desk or going into the hall and covering your head to protect you from nuclear attack was as regular as leaving the building for a fire drill. Then, decades later, in 1999 the horrific Columbine school shooting took place.  That changed the meaning of safe schools forever. And, the change of meaning hasn't stopped.

Do We Truly Understand Mental Health?
Schools that are safe for all learners are important for teaching, learning, growth and development to take place. Schools that are safe for transfer students, minority students, joiners and non-joiners, gay children, transgender children, homeless children. Now we understand that schools must also offer psychological and emotional safety.  But what of those who are mentally ill?  How well do educators understand mental illness?  How well are we prepared to address the issues surrounding those children who have a mental illness? 

As early a 2004 article in Slate, author Dave Cullen wrote a riveting piece reporting that the two operating conclusions most of us held about children who committed acts of school violence were wrong. The two popularly held conclusions were that these were outcasts who wanted revenge or it was simply beyond explanation. But, an FBI-convened group which included psychiatrists and psychologists thought differently.  Those doing the analysis included Michigan State University psychiatrist Dr. Frank Ochberg and Supervisory Special Agent Dwayne Fuselier, the FBI's lead Columbine investigator and a clinical psychologist.

Fuselier and Ochberg say that if you want to understand "the killers," quit asking what drove them. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were radically different individuals, with vastly different motives and opposite mental conditions. Klebold is easier to comprehend, a more familiar type. He was hotheaded, but depressive and suicidal. He blamed himself for his problems.

Harris is the challenge. He was sweet-faced and well-spoken. Adults, and even some other kids, described him as "nice." But Harris was cold, calculating, and homicidal. "Klebold was hurting inside while Harris wanted to hurt people," Fuselier says. Harris was not merely a troubled kid, the psychiatrists say, he was a psychopath.

The Hearts and Minds of Our Children
What have we done to make school environments safer for these children and the ones they may hurt?  We have locked doors, hired guards for school entrances, even created metal detectors screenings and emergency evacuation and stay-in-place drills. We have trained staff and developed partnerships with law enforcement agencies. But what have we done for the hearts and minds, and yes, the illness some hold within?  Very few mentally ill people kill others but they all suffer. Many times their families do also.  All the children are or concern. We are attentive to all of them every day. We notice when something is wrong and behaviors change. We respond when they stop coming to school. Hopefully, we are established the interagency agreements that allow for follow up when they become indivisible in the community.

We stand on the edge of a slippery slope here. Can you not hear the voices of the litigious among us? How can we identify students who might have mental and emotional problems without offending their civil rights?  How can we get help to those who have not "done" something "yet"?  What do we have to know about mental health in order to make schools truly safe?

In her recent Educational Leadership article, The Trauma Sensitive Teacher, Susan E. Craig reports:

  • Twenty-six percent of children in the United States will witness or experience a traumatic event before the age of four.
  • The high prevalence of unresolved trauma among the school-age population is a public health epidemic that threatens children's academic and social mastery.
  • The attention of these students is on survival rather than on the content of instruction.
  • An important step for those with early trauma histories is to separate who they are from what they feel (pp. 28-32).

It Takes a Community of Support
No teacher can do this alone. No child who is suffering from the result of trauma, or a psychological problem or psychiatric illness can be ameliorated by one teacher, one counselor, one parent, yet the action of one person can make all the difference. One persistent, concerned person can alert the system and be catalytic to its response.      

Identifying a child with a psychological or psychiatric problem is difficult even when one is informed and skilled. We toss about psychological terms while having only shallow knowledge of the illnesses themselves. The societal lack of understanding even exceeds or own. Yet more and more families and classrooms struggle with children who evidence these problems.

These types of challenges are not treated like physical illnesses. Think of how we respond as a community when a child is diagnosed with cancer. We work with the family and plan how to keep the child involved in education and in the school community. We explain to classmates what to expect and how to embrace and support the child as she/he goes through treatments and surgeries. We try to alleviate fears and create understanding.

But, the use of the words 'psychological' or 'psychiatric' brings a different response, too often one of isolation and frustration as the child endures the complexity of a life altering, confusing path. There may be parental and child rejection of the diagnosis or embarrassment. Parents wonder whether their actions caused this and denial can easily settle in.  Financial implications and health insurances become factors in getting services for the child. School eruptions sometimes result in parents removing the child and private schools or home schooling become the education alternatives but neither ensures the child gets the care required to manage the illness. The price is high for the child and the community if we miss the opportunity to intervene while the child is still growing and in our care.

There are no easy answers or quick fixes when dealing with human behavior, especially when we know and understand so little about mental illness and still accept it with judgment. Answers can be found however, when the organization asks itself the hard questions. Here are 8 to begin:

  1. What do we know and understand about mental health?
  2. Where is mental health in our priorities?
  3. How do we recognize a child suffering from an emotional challenge or mental illness?
  4. Who are our internal experts?
  5. Who are our community partners?
  6. How can we build effective interagency teams and processes to address these issues even in the context of confidentiality?

With the election over, we will likely hear again about the second amendment and gun control. But, for children and their schools the deeper issue is an earlier and more subtle one. How do we establish a system where care and safety for all children means an alert, informed, supportive, interagency response to mental illness? Now that's an issue we need politicians to raise to a national agenda. It isn't just one in four children who need that. It is all of the children and all of the adults who care about them.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email

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