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Addressing Mental Health Is an Important Factor in Improving School Safety

Notes From the Field
Date Published
October 21, 2019

Like most people, I remember exactly where I was when I heard about the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. I can still see the news broadcasts of students exiting the school with their hands behind their heads.

Since that time, a lot of focus surrounding school safety work has been centered on the physical safety of students and securing our schools. How can we best secure access to school buildings? Should we put metal detectors in schools or arm staff members?

These are all options we need to continue to discuss, but I believe we’re shortchanging a critical component to improving school safety – the psychological well-being of our students.

In addition to being diligent about the physical piece of school safety, we have to be constantly thinking about how we can make kids feel more connected to their school community. How do we help kids develop all of the social and emotional learning skills that will help them be successful moving forward?

These are important considerations because when kids feel connected to their school community, they’re not going to bring a gun to school, harm other people, or harm themselves. Oftentimes, a student may have suffered trauma or experienced issues at home within their family. For these students, school is the only stable and safe place for them. We want them to have as many supports in place as possible so they may feel like a part of the community and succeed academically.

How to Know a Student Needs Help

In Colorado, youth suicides are an epidemic that we’re trying really hard to get our hands around.

Suicides are the leading cause of death for youth and young adults in our state and we know that the mental health of our students continues to be a concern. In recent years, friends calling to say they’re worried about a classmate committing suicide has been the most reported tip through the Safe2Tell hotline, an anonymous tip line run by the Attorney General’s Office for students and community members to report concerning behavior.

We certainly don’t expect teachers to be able to diagnose mental health issues with their students, but an important first step for educators is to educate themselves. Teachers need to have some basic background training in mental health issues so that they will know how to best refer students to mental health professionals.

At the Colorado School Safety Resource Center, we offer a number of free online training courses for anyone to take and our most accessed training program is a course on mental health for educators. In this course, we provide some basics on what a depressed student may look like, and how that student’s education is suffering due to anxiety or other common mental health issues.

In addition to training, we also need to make sure we’re giving our teachers enough time to really get to know their students. In some instances, we forget that the relationship between teacher and student is critical for academic achievement. If the student feels safe and psychologically secure in the classroom, they’re much more likely to succeed.

Any opportunity that allows the teacher to get to know their students on more of a personal level, so that they can know when something is wrong, is very important.

Threat Assessment Teams

In the wake of the Claire Davis School Safety Act – named in honor of Claire Davis, a 17-year-old high school senior killed by a classmate at Arapahoe High School in 2013 – Colorado has been a nationwide leader in establishing threat assessment teams. Prior to the act’s passage, my office had conducted 20 threat assessment trainings, but since 2015, we’ve done over 120 additional trainings on threat assessment. We’ve not only trained schools here in Colorado, but in five other states as well.

Threat assessment teams are made up of a mental health practitioner, school administrator, and law enforcement official to evaluate situations where a student may be at risk of moving down a path toward violence. When a student comes onto their radar, teams can evaluate the situation to determine if this is something that needs immediate attention or if other resources need to be put in place to support the student.

Annually, schools across Colorado conduct over 600 threat assessments because someone has reported a concern with a student.

I believe threat assessment teams are probably one of the best ways to make sure schools don’t have an instance of targeted violence. In Colorado, we have a protocol that we’ve been using and training our schools to follow and we’re seeking grant funding to have this protocol validated by a university.

We’ve learned a lot over the 20 years since Columbine in terms of what to look for in preventing a tragedy at school. We know that there’s no profile of a school shooter, but there are certainly warning signs that a student may be heading in that direction and there are ways to put supports in place that will avert a catastrophe.

About Notes From the Field

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ aims to address the critical questions of the criminal justice field, particularly at the state and local levels.

NIJ Director David Muhlhausen developed the Notes From the Field series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America’s streets today.

Notes From the Field is not a research-based publication. Instead, it presents lessons learned by on-the-ground criminal justice leaders, from years of experience and thinking deeply about criminal justice issues.

Date Published: October 21, 2019