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Advocacy in Action

Advocating for Safe Schools, Positive School Climate, and Comprehensive Mental Health Services

By Katherine C. Cowan & Kelly Vaillancourt

What are you doing to help shape school safety policies in your district? If the answer is nothing, you might ask, “What are the consequences of people who know less than you about the links between mental health, school climate, and school safety making decisions without your input?” This is not a theoretical question. Decisions that will directly impact our students are being made by policy makers who have little to no background in education or mental health. It is our job to educate decision-makers and advocate for policies that effectively address mental health, school climate, school safety, and ultimately, student learning.

The tragedy at Newtown has brought the conversation about how to reduce violence, make schools safer, improve school climate, and increase access to mental health services to the forefront of the national conversation. In his executive orders released last month, President Obama provided incentives for schools to hire more mental health professionals, enhance school climate, and implement effective school crisis plans as a comprehensive approach to addressing school safety. Also included in his recommendations are opportunities to hire more armed school resource officers, purchase physical security measures, and fund community mental health providers. Congress is seriously considering numerous pieces of legislation to address these issues as well. And the conversation is not just happening at a national level, where decisions can take months, even years, to trickle into practice. It is taking place in every state and almost every district across the country. From a policy development perspective, discussions and decisionmaking at the local level are happening at hyperspeed. There is as much risk as opportunity here because decisions that are made quickly, without careful consideration of the consequences, are rarely the most effective in the long run. There are few people who are clearly articulating what comprehensive, effective school safety efforts look like. This is why your voice is so critical and much needed!

We are faced with a unique opportunity that we must take advantage of to ensure the most positive outcomes for the students and families we work with. It is rare that a high profile public policy opportunity arises that aligns so completely with the role of the school psychologist, or where our expertise is more important and valued. Many states and districts will be passing new policies or regulations to “improve” school safety; some of these decisions will be made quickly, without consideration for research or effectiveness. There is no one better than a school psychologist, who knows the community and the school system as well as the issues, to help school leaders make informed decisions.

School psychologists are uniquely positioned to advocate for evidence-based initiatives that create safe and supportive learning environments that naturally prevent violence and ensure that students have access to the supports they need to be successful both inside and outside of the classroom at the local, state, and federal levels. The challenge is often to translate our advocacy and communication skills related to meeting the needs of individual students to advocating for systems-level change in the district or for legislative change at the state and federal levels. The goal of this article is to give you a basic framework to advocate for school safety policies that balance physical safety with psychological safety that incorporates adequate access to mental health services in the schools.

NASP School Safety and Mental Health Documents

Advocacy Tips

Short-Term

  • Become familiar with NASP's school safety recommendations.
  • Discuss these with fellow school psychologists in the district (if possible) and identify specific ways you currently support school safety and what you can do to help enhance it.
  • Send NASP's recommendations to your building and district administrators as well as to your local school board and state legislators. (Either adapt these or include a cover letter to reflect local context.)
  • Offer to meet with school and district level administrators to discuss how to you can help improve school safety efforts (share key data if available or offer to help collect it).
  • Request to sit on the school safety team.
  • Conduct an inservice training or brown bag lunch discussion for school staff on the signs and symptoms of mental health distress.
  • Request to meet with or present to your school board to explain the key elements of effective school safety, how current resources might allocated differently, and what additional resources might be necessary.

Longer Term

  • Monitor policy implementations at the local, district, state, and federal levels and look for ways to highlight the importance of school mental health services.
  • Request to sit on the school leadership team.
  • Organize a briefing with local or state decision makers regarding ways to implement and sustain effective school safety and school mental health initiatives.
  • Coordinate local advocacy efforts with efforts of your state school psychology association.

Understand the Landscape

Just as in working with a student or classroom, the first step in any advocacy and communications effort is to assess the situation. You have to know the current context related to school safety and violence prevention, the forces at play in making changes, who the stakeholders are, and what resources or obstacles exist to effective change.

Specifically, you should determine:

  • Possible state legislation and what its focus is (this can shape local dialogue)
  • Local desire to increase armed security personnel, or to arm other school personnel
  • Efforts to contract with community mental health services to improve school safety
  • Existing school safety programming in the district (school climate efforts, bullying prevention, PBIS)
  • Status of school or district crisis team and plans (level of training, integration with community, members of team, etc.)
  • Roles of school psychologists and other school-employed mental professionals related to safety and crisis efforts
  • Awareness of your own skills related to school safety and violence prevention

Identify and Understand Key Stakeholders

A stakeholder is anyone who has a vested interest in the decisions being made about, and who could have an influence on, a particular issue. In the case of school safety, that includes just about everyone. It is critical to identify the individuals and groups with the decision-making power (e.g., administrators, school board members, and other policy makers) and those with the most influence (e.g., parents, community safety experts, community organizations). Within each of the groups, identify the individuals most likely to listen to your input and who might become vocal allies in your advocacy efforts. You also want to identify individuals or groups who might be the most vocal opponents to a comprehensive approach to school safety. Whether allies or opponents, you always want to understand your audience's primary concerns and desires. Everyone wants to ensure the safety of students and school personnel, but the related issues that can shape thinking will vary among audiences. For example, the school board is most likely concerned about costs and legal issues. Principals are often most concerned about impacts on school staff and instructional time, use of available resources, and meeting district requirements regarding safety planning. Parents care that their children are safe, valued, and successful in school. In the end, these are all similar issues seen from different perspectives. Your job as an advocate is to tailor your communication about comprehensive school safety and mental health initiatives to the perspectives of specific audiences.

Clarify Your Role

Advocating for comprehensive initiatives to address school safety, school climate, and school mental health begins with understanding how to talk about what you do and why it is important. It is critical to establish the connection between the mental health services that you are advocating for and the people who are responsible for providing those services. School psychologists (as well as school counselors and school social workers) are the most qualified professionals to deliver mental health services within the school setting; however, due to the various roles that school psychologists play, administrators and other educators may not be aware of the breadth of training these professionals have and their ability to provide high quality mental health services to children. Administrators may seek to bring community-based mental health professionals into the school because they are unaware there are already professionals who can deliver these services currently working in their building. In fact, the President's recommendations call for paying for mental health first-aid training for teachers by community mental health providers. Educating those with whom you work on your scope of practice will help clarify the unique services school psychologists provide as well as how we collaborate and work together to make sure that every student has access to the services they need both in the school and within the community.

Make Use of NASP Resources

If you have not already, familiarize yourself with NASP's resources related to school safety and crisis, which are all available online at http://www.nasponline.org/resources/crisis_safety/school-safety-resources (see inset box). Share these documents with your colleagues, school administrators, and district-level officials. They can serve as a conversation starter with decision-makers, provide key points of relevant research, and work as guiding principles to addressing school safety in a way that balances physical and psychological safety.

Join Your School or District's Leadership Team

As school psychologists, you have unique training in collecting and analyzing data to help ensure that school-wide systems are addressing the needs of the school and can help ensure that the appropriate prevention and intervention services are available for those students who need them. It is critical that you advocate for representation on school and district level leadership teams tasked with addressing school climate, safety, and mental health.

Develop Key Messages

Following are a few of the key ideas related to comprehensive school safety and mental health and which are infused throughout NASP's documents. These are just to get you started. You should adapt them to reflect your school and district context. When communicating with stakeholders, be sure to sure to adapt messages to their perspective and always emphasize the overarching ideas:

  • Effective school safety efforts balance physical and psychological safety and always reinforce learning.
  • Comprehensive school safety and mental health services are more effective and sustainable when provided through a collaborative, multitiered system of supports.
  • I have valuable, relevant skills and am here to help.

Effective school safety efforts require a comprehensive, whole-school approach. School safety is not achieved by purchasing a designated program or piece of equipment; rather, effective efforts integrate school climate, effective discipline, social–emotional learning, positive behavior, mental health, and academics through a multitiered system of supports (MTSS) and problem solving model. An MTSS framework emphasizes wellness promotion, prevention, and early intervention and helps to minimize redundancies and gaps in services. Equally important, comprehensive school safety addresses the most common forms of harmful or violent behavior that undermine school safety, such as bullying, fighting, and self-harm.

Safe and successful learning environments are fostered through collaboration among school-employed professionals and community-based providers through an interdisciplinary team approach. Effective school safety efforts require the dedication and commitment of all school staff and relevant community members. All schools should have an active school safety team that focuses on overall school climate as well as crisis and emergency preparedness, response, and recovery. This team should include school administrators, school mental health professionals, and other school staff to ensure that efforts are sustained over time. Close interdisciplinary collaboration is both facilitated by and helps to support an MTSS framework.

School mental health services are essential to creating and sustaining safe schools. Increased access to mental health services and supports in schools is vital to improving the physical and psychological safety of our students and schools, as well as their academic performance and problem-solving skills. School mental health supports that encompass social–emotional learning, mental wellness, resilience, and positive connections between students and adults are essential to creating a school culture in which students feel safe and empowered to report safety concerns, which is proven to be among the most effective school safety strategies. Additionally, in the aftermath of a crisis, school psychologists can help provide supports that facilitate a return to normalcy, are sustainable, and can help to identify and work with students with more intense or ongoing needs.

School safety strategies must balance physical and psychological safety measures. Our schools should not resemble fortresses. We cannot barricade against all possible harm and trying to do so is counterproductive to maintaining a healthy learn- ing environment. Excessive building security (e.g., metal detectors, security cameras) does not promote a sense of safety or student well-being, nor does it provide a guarantee of protection against an armed intruder. Reasonable physical security such as locked doors, lighted hallways, and visitor check-in systems must be combined with efforts to promote a positive school climate and trust among staff, students, and families where students feel connected and part of a close-knit and caring community, and in which they feel empowered to report any safety concerns.

Schools need school safety and crisis plans that are consistently reviewed and practiced. School safety and crisis response are not separate endeavors, but rather they exist on a continuum. Training, planning, and professional development should encompass ongoing prevention and early intervention efforts as well as response and recovery plans in the event the unpreventable occurs. This entails a multitiered approach, which includes universal mental health screenings and interventions as well as more intensive approaches for students deemed at risk for violence to themselves or others. School mental health professionals should be an integral part of developing and implementing these plans. In addition, we can provide training to other school staff on how to identify students who may be experiencing mental health difficulties. All plans and training should facilitate collaboration between school personnel, first responders, and community providers. Suggest PREPaRE training as a proven model that utilizes existing staff resources, is sustainable, and supports learning as well as effective safety and crisis response.

School mental health services support the mission and purpose of schools—learning— and are most effectively provided by trained school professionals. All services provided in schools should be appropriate to the learning environment; those that are not risk being ineffective or even counterproductive. Just as children are not simply small adults, schools are not merely private clinics with chalk boards. Being trained to work within this culture is essential to providing services that are effective, cost-effective, and sustainable. School psychologists have specialized training in child development, mental health, learning, and school systems and law. Our unique expertise lies in how these elements interact to shape children's behavior, learning, and overall adjustment.

As your school psychologist, I am here to help. I have training in mental health, behavior, discipline, conflict resolution, and threat assessment that directly applies to school safety and climate. I can help identify students who may need mental health interventions and, in conjunction with the school counselor and school social worker, can provide these services to ensure that all students are available for learning to the maximum extent possible. For students who need more intensive services, I can help coordinate with community providers. Additionally, I can consult with teachers and administrators to ensure that classroom and school-wide systems are organized to support student learning as well as positive behavior and violence prevention.

Conclusion

We must not miss this unique opportunity to significantly impact decisions related to school mental health, school safety, and school climate. Your voice is critical to ensure that our school environments are safe, supportive, and most importantly, conducive to learning. NASP has lots of resources to help you. We encourage you to use them and let us know what you do: Kelly Vaillancourt (kvaillancourt@naspweb.org) and Kathy Cowan (kcowan@naspweb.org).


Katherine C. Cowan is NASP Director of Communications and Kelly Vaillancourt, PhD, NCSP, is NASP Director of Government Relations.