School Safety

Addressing school shootings, student mental health, and other related factors

Keeping School Safety a Priority

School districts and police have responded in a variety of ways to the threat of violence. Some schools have elected to randomly search students’ backpacks and lockers, others use metal detectors at every door, and many more employ an SRO (School Resource Officer).

Research about the effectiveness of SROs and their impact on school safety has been mixed. School Resource Officers1 are members of local law enforcement, with the power to make arrests in the school at any time. Estimates on the prevalence of SROs vary, but in 2018, the NCES (National Center for Education Statistics) reported that 42% of U.S. public schools employed at least one officer2. Some studies have found security benefits in the presence of an SRO: researchers at Carleton University3 discovered that, over two years, SRO protection reduced the number of student injuries and property damage at school, as well as increased feelings of overall school safety among students and staff. Properly trained School Resource Officers who understand the school environment can be a wonderful resource for isolated, frustrated or mentally ill students; however, SROs are not required to complete such training before serving in a school.

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Other studies have demonstrated disadvantages to SRO presence in educational spaces. According to law professor and researcher Jason Nance, giving administrators and teachers the power to refer misbehaving students to police can increase the number of juvenile arrests in schools and communities4. Youth who enter the juvenile justice system, whether after an arrest in school or otherwise, are much more likely5 than their peers to drop out of high school; some researchers wonder whether having officers make arrests in school decreases the educational attainment of a community. Even if SROs do not make arrests, their presence can lead to greater in-school and out-of-school suspensions— research shows that this type of discipline negatively affects academic growth and increases students’ future contact with the juvenile justice system6.
Metal detectors, randomized searches and School Resource Officers can affect schools in less tangible ways, too. Research shows that schools with visible security measures can negatively affect students’ perception of school safety, even creating fear among some students. Some studies demonstrate that the social and academic climate of schools are negatively influenced by security measures, and that they increase the likelihood of minor student misconduct resulting in legal action. Yet SROs, when embedded in school culture, can become integral sources of early prevention when students are struggling. Though research on school safety measures is mixed, trained and vigilant SROs can offer schools another resource to identify warning signs among youth. 

Student Mental Health 

Each year, roughly 15 million youth across the United States suffer from mental, behavioral or emotional disorders7—and the prevalence appears to be growing. While it is important to consider the mental health of all age groups, it is especially important for our youth—children with mental health problems are much more likely to develop substance abuse problems, become involved in criminal activity, and drop out of school8. Yet research shows that only about half of children and adolescents with these conditions are receiving proper treatment, if any.

A large reason behind this alarming statistic is that several families are in poverty or without insurance, and ongoing mental health care is pricey. Even families with insurance will often discover that psychiatric treatment isn’t covered at all. When a family’s own in-home efforts to address their child’s mental health problems prove unsuccessful, and ongoing psychiatric treatment in a private office isn’t affordable, what’s left is a promising alternative: support through schools and communities.

2018 has seen a rise in activism from educators—such as walk-outs, protests, and marches—addressing issues that remain in the education field: school closures, lack of resources, understaffed campuses and underpaid teachers, to name a few. Along with these current stressors, mental health support in schools is lacking. Teachers—some working in these understaffed schools—are primarily dedicated to academic success and classroom management and typically do not receive much training regarding mental health. This lack of training is tough to bear, considering that teachers are oftentimes the first person a student turns to in times of distress. And while the staff who are trained, such as counselors and school psychologists, have the knowledge to address students’ needs, they are very limited with time and resources. In fact, although The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommend a ratio of no more than 700 students per school psychologist, the ratio across American schools in 2014–15 was estimated to be nearly twice that.9

Young people spend more time interacting at school than at home, and they can receive support from teachers, counselors, coaches, and other school staff. Which means that school can be an excellent outlet for students needing mental health support—if there are solutions to the above-mentioned barriers. So how can schools overcome such obstacles? One way is to implement community-based programs, such as Multisystemic Therapy (MST). MST therapists work within the homes and communities of our youth, as well as their schools. School staff are already stretched thin, but MST therapists can step in and help youth with their mental health and problematic behaviors in the classroom environment. School staff benefits too, as the therapists can provide them with assistance as well as helpful tools and resources on how to respond to troubling situations.

It is imperative that schools develop working relationships with community-based programs and other local organizations so that the number of youth struggling with untreated disorders does not continue to rise. When the mental health needs of students are addressed, a school’s safety improves overall: healthier minds lead to better choices, which in turn can prevent violent incidents from occurring. And The National Association of School Psychologists agree—"Partnerships between schools and community mental/behavioral health professionals offer students and families an extended network of services that are easily accessible. When programs are able to identify and address student mental and behavioral challenges early, students are more likely to gain resiliency skills and be successful in school and life while the threat of later harm is reduced.” 


Risks That Lead to School Shootings

Though behavior is driven by a complex set of issues and variables, there are definite factors that can increase the risk of youth violence. One of the well-documented roots of antisocial personality disorder—linked to aggression, relationship struggles, and anger—is experiencing trauma as a youth.10 Events like divorce, loss of a family member, abuse or economic instability can lead young people to isolate themselves from others, and even to turn to violence and anger. On top of trauma, witnessing violence in a home or around a neighborhood may lead to more aggressive coping mechanisms and future violent behavior among youth.
Isolation from positive, supportive social networks can also catalyze or contribute to mental health issues, antisocial behavior and feelings of anger. At home, family disruption through divorce or financial instability is correlated to higher levels of youth violence11—just as a stable home can provide a strong social ecosystem, a volatile one can cause feelings of isolation and loneliness. At school, exclusion can become a point of aggression and resentment; students that have been bullied are over twice as likely to bring a weapon to school.12
Of course, it’s inaccurate to characterize all perpetrators of school shootings as victims of mental illness or trauma. Though these factors can lead to anger and aggression, the risk of school shootings becomes a more tangible threat when antisocial behavior is partnered with access to weaponry, particularly firearms. Among juveniles, 1 out of every 3 homes with children under age 18 own guns13; when youth with underdeveloped coping mechanisms have access to weaponry, they are given the ability to carry out violence on a large scale. Since 1990, there have been 25 school shootings carried out by youth—of the 20 cases where relevant details are accessible, 17 of the juveniles accessed guns from home or close relatives.14

Though no single factor leads to a school shooting, unaddressed mental health issues, isolation, high levels of youth violence, trauma and access to weaponry can create an environment that increases the chance of this tragedy occurring. Being aware of these various risk factors and addressing them with intervention programs that provide juvenile therapy is an important step to enhancing safety within schools and communities. 

How Can We Stop School Shootings?

Since 2009, Canada has experienced two school shootings, France has experienced one, and the U.S. has experienced a shocking 288.15 Facing such a critical, unique and prevalent problem, it’s clear that for American schools and communities to stop school shootings from reoccurring, among other strategies, they need to focus on research-based, effective prevention efforts. With issues like mental illness, isolation and access to firearms all playing a role in the likelihood of school shootings, effective treatment will address the entire ecosystem of a juvenile’s life, from the community to school to family.
Multisystemic Therapy (MST) is an evidence-based juvenile therapy model for those who are at risk of becoming involved with the juvenile justice system. By addressing all facets of youth life in the treatment process, MST can give communities more resources to assist them in the fight to stop school shootings. Many juveniles who have perpetrated school shootings did, in fact, receive treatment for mental illness, violence or anger before committing homicide—however, standard treatments focus solely on the youth rather than their communities and families as well. MST is a different kind of treatment: by working with family members, school officials and community leaders, MST's juvenile therapy programs aim to build a strong social network that will provide long-term support for youth struggling with isolation or mental illness.
One of the major risk factors of a school shooting is access to weaponry, particularly through the family—MST addresses this by providing effective services like household management training directly to family members. Research proves this method effective: after MST, the parents or other caregivers of juveniles involved in the treatment committed 94% fewer felonies. A safer home means less easily accessible weaponry, as well as a more stable support network for youth—in fact, families involved in MST report increased cohesion even after treatment. MST has also been proven effective at reducing violent behavior among youth, a harbinger for future school shootings: in Charleston, youth involved in MST demonstrated a 75% reduction in aggressive crimes and were much less likely to be rearrested than those youth who were treated in out-of-home detention centers.
Living among communities, schools and families where violence is common can begin to normalize aggressive behavior in teenagers; that’s why Multisystemic Therapy’s research-based model prioritizes all aspects of an adolescent's life. There is no single solution to stop school shootings from happening. However, by working with education administrators to address "red flag" behavior at school, and with family members to create supportive environments at home, MST programs effectively address three major risk factors that can lead to violence: isolation, mental illness and access to weaponry.

Funding Community, Home, and School-based Programs

The MST approach to putting juvenile offenders on the right path has been shown to be extremely effective in terms of its success rate, decrease in crime and keeping down costs. The question becomes how can communities and organizations pay for MST programs? Here are four steps that should be considered:

  • Assess whether your community needs an MST program.
  • Determine what funding is available.
  • Set up sustainable funding that will be in place for years.
  • Focus on long-term strategies.
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