A few weeks ago, it was reported that one year following the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students are reporting more anxiety and depression and cutting classes. Research has long demonstrated that the effects of shootings and other campus-wide crises (i.e. suicides, weather-related destruction, and other unexpected accidents), as well as a perceived lack of safety at school among students, have negative correlations with student success.
When an emergency such as a school shooting occurs, the next few days and following weeks are filled with moments of silence, candle light vigils, and memorial services. As the weeks go by, these events slowly dissipate, and the school is left to try to figure out how to endure the months and years to come.
Schools are most effective at creating safe environments for their students when they proactively encourage students to talk about how they are feeling and promote openness and active listening. Most importantly, we want students and the academic community to know that it is OK to not feel OK.
School crises can occur anytime and anywhere, and it is time for a proactive approach to creating safe school environments, including providing appropriate and adequate mental health support at all times by building a strong foundation in the community.
Taking a proactive approach to creating safe schools
Here are just a few specific, practical ways school administrators can proactively create safe school environments:
- Prepare a crisis-response and recovery plan that is inclusive and proactive. Students report feeling safer when they receive training on what to do in the event of an emergency. A school is in a better position to more clearly respond to a crisis when they have developed a plan that thinks through the unique mental health and safety needs of the community.
- Reduce stigma on campus by providing mental health promotion in classrooms and offering support to students.
- Establish a firm foundation on campus that integrates behavioral health support services, a systems-wide investment, collaborative approaches, and effective partnerships.
- Promote social emotional learning environments, trauma-informed practices, behavioral health literacy for students and faculty, and universal screenings.
- Foster an environment that supports feelings of physical and emotional safety year-round. Students feel safer when they trust their classmates and teachers. Cultivating a sense of support and belonging on campus gives students permission to ask for help when they need it the most.
- Know that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to emergency training curriculum. Schools should tailor their training specifically to their community’s unique demographic and physical and emotional needs.
- Clearly prepare and advise faculty and students ahead of time if the school plans to execute an emergency drill. When the drill occurs, clearly state that it is not a real emergency to avoid unnecessarily traumatizing students. When conducting emergency drills and plans, remove the colors codes (i.e. code blue, red, etc) which often cause confusion during times of crisis. Instead, terms like “lockdown” and “shelter-in-place” are more obvious and easy to understand, especially in times of emergency when comprehension can become difficult.
Effectively supporting a campus after a crisis
Additionally, schools can support their campus through a crisis (i.e. suicide, shooting, weather-related event) by observing the following recommendations:
- Let students know that their feelings associated with the trauma are always valid and that asking for help is a sign of strength.
- Continue to reduce stigma that surrounds mental health by making yourself available and willing to have tough conversation.
- If a student is feeling anxious in the classroom about their safety, teachers may try suggesting that the student take a break. Removing oneself from the classroom can greatly help reduce anxiety and help one process their feelings.
- Schools should provide mental health resources based on psychological impact, not merely based on physical injury. By doing this, the school is showing students and the community that psychological impact is independent of physical injury.
Although it can be difficult to discuss sensitive topics, such as safety and mental health, it is important to talk about both topics with students so we can continue to foster an environment where they feel safe and where they can learn, develop relationships, and build self-confidence.