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NASP Communiqué, Vol. 33, #7

Safe Schools and Springtime Stress: Prevention Issues

By Scott Poland, EdD, NCSP
National Association of School Psychologists

The spring semester has been marred in recent years by tragic shootings in several of our nation's public schools.  Communities that immediately come to mind are Jonesboro AR, Springfield OR, Littleton CO, Lake Worth FL, Santee and El Cajon CA, and most recently, Red Lake MN.  School personnel have questioned why so many tragedies have occurred during this particular time of the school year.   A set of constant factors and pressures on students have historically resulted in increased threats of violence and behavior problems each spring, including:

  • Frustrations from the long school year
  • Anticipation/anxiety issues for summer vacation
  • Transition issues regarding changing relationships with graduation or move to a new school
  • Failing grades and recognition of the reality of repeating the same grade
  • Pressure of semester exams
  • Awareness of spring anniversary dates (highly publicized school shootings, Hitler's birthday, Oklahoma City bombing, the Branch Davidian fire in Waco)
  • High stakes testing results (mandatory retention, possible denial of a high school diploma)

Additional Stressors and Assets, Post 9/11

Students face additional stressors as a result of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the ongoing war in Iraq, and the recent school shootings in Red Lake. These stressors include:

  • Continuing war on terrorism
  • Increasing racial and religious tensions especially directed toward Arab-Americans and members of the Islamic faith
  • Hundreds of thousands of U.S. military personnel with immediate and extended families who have been affected by troop deployment
  • Financial recession in our country

Positive national responses since 9/11/01 have included increased patriotism; family renewal; participation in projects and donations in support of families impacted by troop deployment, the Tsunami crisis in Asia and the Red Lake shootings; and increased awareness of the importance of mental health services, particularly the importance of stress management.

Anticipating Needs

There are lessons to be learned from past tragedies such as Hurricane Andrew,  the Oklahoma City bombing, Columbine and September 11th .  Research findings indicate that, during the period from six to eighteen months following each tragedy, an increased frequency of mental health and family difficulties surfaced in those who were affected by the traumas.  Following these and other tragedies, there were a number of suicides by both adults and children.  It is important that school personnel not underestimate either the initial or long-term impact of a crisis on students as well as staff members.  Traumatized adolescents in particular have shown increased reckless behavior, substance abuse, depression and suicidal behavior.  Following a tragedy, children of all ages are fearful of the future, regress behaviorally and/or academically, and often experience sleeping difficulties.  Student behaviors and school safety concerns that may surface this spring are:

  • Increased bullying
  • Lack of tolerance of diversity
  • Increased threats of violence
  • Increased misbehavior
  • Increased self-mutilation
  • Increased suicidal behavior
  • Increased bomb threats

The recent U.S. Secret Service report on targeted school violence concluded:

  • There is no definite profile of previous student shooters, as they varied in race, ethnicity, family background, and level of school success.
  • Almost all of the perpetrators told someone about their plans to commit an act of violence.
  • Revenge was the primary motive.
  • Two-thirds of the perpetrators were suicidal and were the victims of bullying.

Any student who is experiencing fears is a student who is not learning.  To maximize student achievement and success this spring, it is imperative that schools provide an environment where students feel they are safe.

Prevention Activities

We would all like to believe that the war on terrorism is almost over, but that is clearly not the case, and our military is still engaged in action in Iraq. School shootings are actually rare occurrences but the tragedy at Red Lake reminds us that we can not be complacent regarding either school security or student mental health needs. And disasters such as the Tsunami remind us that there are some events that are beyond anyone’s control.  It is recommended that school administrators and support personnel pay careful attention to the climate in their schools this spring.  Increased visibility of school personnel in hallways, lunchrooms, etc. during changing periods and before and after school is recommended.  In addition, school personnel should be vigilant to any indicators of bullying, prejudice, or other forms of harassment. Key recommendations for school administrators and support personnel include:

  • Develop threat assessment procedures.
  • Create safety task forces that include students.
  • Build positive faculty/student relations with the goal that students view adults as trustworthy and caring.
  • Develop policies and programs to reduce bullying.
  • Personalize massive schools and help instill in students a sense of belonging.
  • Provide classroom discussions on safety and tolerance.
  • Develop and/or clarify procedures to prevent youth suicide.
  • Model tolerance of diversity.
  • Among school and community leaders of different races and religions, collaborate and unite in efforts to support students.

School safety is an inside job that requires a commitment first from the student body and then from the faculty, parents and community.  Two practical examples to get that commitment from students are:

  • Conduct leadership meetings where the principal or superintendent meets with a variety of student leaders to discuss key issues.
  • Have all students and their parents sign a safety contract that includes a commitment to manage anger, be tolerant of others, reduce bullying, and report threats of violence to adults at school.

Many parents are especially fearful and concerned about school safety.  Include parents in safety planning activities and give them clear comprehensive information if safety concerns arise.

No one wants to make a prediction about future tragedy, but this is certainly a time for adults to increase supervision of children and students and to have many meaningful dialogues.  Mental health services and wellness programs in our schools have never been more important.  It is critical that school administrators review these important issues and their crisis plans with their staff and coordinate closely with school and local police. We hope that every school in America will have a safe conclusion of the school year.

Resources for School Personnel

Dwyer, L.. Osher, D. & Warger, C. (1998). Early warning, timely response: A guide to safe schools. Washington, DC: Department of Education (available from http://cecp.air.org/guide).

Lazarus, P., Jimerson, S. & Brock, S. (Eds.) (2002). Best practices in school crisis prevention and intervention. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists. (see www.nasponline.org/publications).

Poland, S. (2000). Coping with crisis: Lessons learned. Longmont, CO:  Sopris West (see www.sopriswest.com).

Websites for Safe Schools Resources

National Association of School Psychologists—www.nasponline.org

National Mental Health Association—www.nmha.org

National Resource Center for Safe Schools—www.safetyzone.org

Safe and Responsive Schools Project—www.indiana.edu/~safeschl

This article was originally written for and posted on the Guidance Channel website in April 2002 (www.guidancechannel.com), and is reprinted with permission. The ideas were generated during the 2002 NASP Convention in Chicago, when the NASP NEAT Team--along with Past President Kevin Dwyer, NASP friend and colleague David Osher, and Executive Director Susan Gorin--met to decide what and how to communicate concerns about students in our nation's school, following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  Scott Poland then summarized the discussion for the Guidance Channel and our NASP members; this article has now been updated for 2005.

Scott Poland, EdD, NCSP, is a Past President of NASP and Director of Psychological Services in the Cypress-Fairbanks ISD in Houston, TX. He is a past Chair and current member of the NASP National Emergency Assistance Team, and was a member of the intervention team invited to support the staff, students and community of Red Lake, MN in March 2005.

©2005, National Association of School Psychologists, 4340 East West Hwy, ##402, Bethesda, MD 20814