This past summer following the tragic shooting at Santa Fe High School, lawmakers, advocates, family members, school personnel, and students began conversations around school safety. As we are now nearing the end of session, legislators are working towards solutions to this complicated and challenging issue.
Leading into the 86th Texas legislature session, Governor Greg Abbott announced school safety as an emergency item and two views became clear: a focus on school hardening and a focus on mental health. While both reactions to the traumatic event are well intended, there is often disagreement on where dollars and resources should be directed.
School hardening includes one-time investments in infrastructure such as bulletproof glass, metal detectors, physical barriers and security cameras. A more contested and debated strategy is the utilization of school marshals and/or increased police presence on school campuses.
Gun control, mental health and disability advocates argue that increased police presence, including school marshals, would have unintentional and harmful consequences. They argue that police presence in schools diverts resources away from evidenced-based initiatives that improve school climate and inadvertently drive schools to rely on law enforcement to manage student discipline.
There is evidence that punitive discipline negatively affects students’ sense of safety, well-being and ability to learn. In communities with few resources, school personnel may request help from law enforcement, unintentionally leading to increased criminalization of our youth. Police presence in schools correlates with increased disciplinary action, arrests and referrals to the juvenile justice system. Most concerning, students of color or with disabilities are affected disproportionately.
At the same time, there is a push for increased mental health services and supports in schools. There is, however, often a conflict for some advocates around this discussion. While many welcome increasing access, we don’t want mental illness associated with dangerousness and school safety following a school shooting.
Research shows that loneliness, isolation, anger and despair are better predictors of violence than a diagnosed mental illness. Many children in our public schools, while not living with serious emotional disturbance or mental illness, may experience trauma or struggle with personal well-being. In fact, in 2018, 37 percent of Texas high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless for a period of two weeks or longer that resulted in decreased usual activity.
While increasing mental health services in schools expands access and availability, this is just one tool to support students, teachers and schools. There are multiple approaches that are able to positively impact the school climate. Utilizing trauma-informed education, positive behavior interventions and supports, restorative discipline, and social and emotional learning improves well-being at schools and benefits all students.
Implementation of these strategies improve academic achievement—increasing test scores, attendance, grades, and graduation rates, while decreasing truancy and disciplinary rates. When students feel safe and supported, they are able to better focus and participate in their learning. According to the Texas School Safety Center, “creating a school climate that promotes academic engagement, connection to the community, and encourages meaningful relationships among peers and educators can not only reduce violent behaviors, but can also help students recover from the psychological trauma that these instances of violence may inflict.”
In addition to teaching, educators are too often expected to manage diverse issues in the classroom like unaddressed mental health concerns, maintaining a safe learning environment, and attending to the varying needs of children. It should not come as a surprise when we hear of teachers experiencing burnout from a lack of resources or support. Improving the school’s climate, inclusive of mental health in schools, leads to teachers feeling better supported and higher rates of job satisfaction. Additionally, these strategies help to improve teaching efficacy, classroom environments, and student-teacher relationships.
Conversations around how to best support our students, teachers and schools are often impassioned, and regardless of proposed solution, the desired result is the same: to support schools and keep our children safe. When looking at what is most effective and most appropriate for schools, the reality is that across each school district, different strategies will need to vary to meet their individual needs.
As different bills make their way through the Texas House and Senate, research and best practices should be considered to ensure that dollars invested are strategic and effective. More importantly, we should create solutions that best support our children and teachers, and improve school climate so that communities can thrive in delivering quality education in environments that support the well-being of our children.
The Hogg Foundation’s Trauma-Informed Approaches to Behavior in Schools grant program actively combats the indiscriminate use of exclusionary discipline practices in academic environments.
Rather than putting all the responsibility on teachers, we need to put structures in place that support the behavior change and culture shift that we’re advocating for.