NASP Communiqué, Vol. 33, #7
Safe Schools and
Springtime Stress: Prevention
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,
- Frustrations from the long school year
- Anticipation/anxiety issues for summer
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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.
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
- Build positive faculty/student relations
with the goal that students view adults as trustworthy and caring.
- Develop policies and programs to reduce
- Personalize massive schools and help instill
in students a sense of belonging.
- Provide classroom discussions on safety
- Develop and/or clarify procedures to prevent
- Model tolerance of diversity.
- Among school and community leaders of
different races and religions, collaborate and unite in efforts to support
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
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