Leaders and School Safety
By Amy R. Smith
The tragic events that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut, and the heightened national dialogue that has taken place since has underscored the importance of educators and legislators effectively addressing school safety. It is important that, throughout these discussions, those who are making decisions receive rational, practical recommendations on ways to improve school safety. This is a topic where school psychologists have much to contribute and one where NASP can provide tremendous resources.
A good starting point for discussions surrounding school safety is to reinforce the idea that schools are safe places. In fact, schools are one of the safest places for children. The U.S. Center for Disease Control's School-Associated Violent Death Study for the 2009–2010 school year reports that the odds of a young person ages 5 to 18 years being the victim of a homicide at school, on their way to school, or at a school-sponsored event were 1 in 2.5 million. While even a single loss of life is too many, keeping this reality in perspective can allow for more civil discussions and levelheaded decision-making.
Promoting school safety encompasses much more than implementing extraordinary measures born from an urgent desire to stop unthinkable tragedies. The current tenor of the national dialogue is one that promotes these types of measures as debates over arming teachers and instituting mental health diagnosis databases that will disregard privacy and further support the stigma and negative consequences attached to seeking treatment continue. As leaders in our buildings, there is much we can contribute to the discussions with our administrators, families, and communities. It is important to guide the conversations surrounding school safety toward the implementation of a continuum of services. A continuum of strategies that includes providing mental health services, addressing building safety concerns, and implementing effective instructional practices.
Promoting mental health services as a way to increase school safety can be challenging. Too often the idea of mental health services invokes only the image of providing individual therapy to clients who have a diagnosis. While it is true that students who need mental health treatment are most likely to receive those services in school, this is not the entirety of what we would describe as mental health services in schools.
The first step in promoting increased services within a school is to educate key stakeholders on the continuum of services that encompass the promotion of mental health. An often overlooked aspect of mental health services are activities related to supporting and encouraging the development of positive mental health, services that occur before there is a problem. Directly teaching coping skills, problem solving strategies, positive self-esteem, and healthy interactions with others provides students with tools they will use throughout life. It will also promote a safe, welcoming, and supportive environment within the school and allow students to focus on learning. Beyond advocating for better approaches to prevention and the creation of safe, supportive learning environments, the continuum of mental health services also includes interventions that allow school personnel to address issues ranging from individual student needs to crisis situations.
Addressing building safety issues (e.g., security cameras, locking doors, metal detectors, security personnel) should be considered through the lens of balancing staff and student safety with the potential negative psychological impact that such measures could have. Remembering that schools are, overall, safe places, it is important to consider the difference between possible events and probable events and adopt building security measures accordingly.
An often-overlooked aspect of the school safety continuum is the academic programming that is present within a building. Students who are presented with engaging and challenging academic tasks delivered at their instructional level are less likely to experience frustration and more likely to feel successful in school. When school safety initiatives lead to an environment where students can focus on learning, the quality of that academic program cannot be neglected. Providing teachers and related service providers with the tools needed to ensure students receive a quality academic program is an important aspect of promoting school safety.
This issue of Communiqué includes a series of articles to guide you in advocacy related to comprehensive school efforts that balance physical and psychological safety, as well as support successful learning. Additionally, NASP provides a wide range of materials on our website including position statements, fact sheets, news releases, policy statements, and advocacy tips. It is only communication with a focus on facts and the application of research-based strategies that will minimize the impact of very vocal, issue-driven interest groups from hijacking our efforts to effect real changes that promote school safety. I encourage you to use this information and become active in promoting school safety and filling the role of building leader.
Amy R. Smith is the president of the National Association of School Psychologists.