Anxiety and stress levels are on the rise for many students, parents, staff and teachers as they return to campuses and classrooms for the 2022-23 school year.
Some students and teachers are still struggling with returning to schools after remote learning and closures during the coronavirus pandemic.
Others worry about mass school shootings and their seemingly all-too-regular occurrence across the country.
The elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas in late May, with its failed police response and the killing of 19 elementary students and two teachers, added to the stress.
Students and parents want to feel more empowered and in control of potential emergency situations. It’s part of a much larger mental and behavioral component to addressing school violence, according to counselors and school safety experts across the country.
“There’s a lot of anxiety — a lot of them feel pretty helpless,” said Willow Goldfarb, a licensed mental health counselor and lead clinician for Thriveworks in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., of students she counseled after Uvalde.
She worked with those affected by the 2018 Valentine’s Day mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Nikolas Cruz, then 19, opened fire there, killing 17 people and wounding 17 others.
Wounds from the Parkland massacre and reviews of Cruz’s troubled childhood and his mental and behavioral health issues were reopened this summer with sentencing testimony heard in a Florida courtroom. Among the testimonies were parents and loved ones still in mourning.
Goldfarb hears from students, parents and teachers following the Uvalde shooting, about their concerns about police responses after it took officers an hour to confront shooter Salvador Ramos.
Goldfarb said some students are pushing for more of their own options for survival, escape and connections to the outside world.
Some students wondered why they couldn’t be armed if teachers and staff had that option in more gun-friendly states and regions.
“It’s the tale of the good shooter shooting the bad guys,” Goldfarb said.
She also said some students don’t like the restrictive cellphone policies some schools impose. She’s heard from children who have become accustomed to constant communication with their parents during the pandemic, as well as those who want to be able to call 911 or share information in an emergency, that such rules are a source of anxiety.
Goldfarb said students also shared that they often feel overlooked when it comes to school safety and security. They say districts would be better served if school officials were as collaborative, inclusive and transparent as possible.
“I feel like kids get talked about a lot. Just tell them what’s going to happen,” Goldfarb said.
She said she tries to empower students who are concerned about school safety to follow their instincts in school safety situations.
“I talk to them about trusting their instincts,” Goldfarb said.
Concerned parents also want to feel more empowered and are pushing to be more involved in school safety and security decisions in light of the recent shootings, said Sharon Hoover, professor of child and college psychiatry. teenager at the University of Maryland Medical School and co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health.
“How are you going to keep my child safe?” is a common refrain Hoover hears from worried parents as the new school year approaches.
“Families definitely want to be at the table,” Hoover said.
‘The living hell’
The need to feel empowered and included is just the tip of the mental and behavioral health iceberg when it comes to schools, given the ongoing challenges of bullying and the regularity of contemporary mass shootings.
According to Brenda High, tackling bullying and anti-social behavior is key to addressing the mental health components of school violence.
High co-founded Bully Police USA after her 13-year-old son killed himself after being bullied at a school in Washington state. The Idaho group is advocating for stronger anti-bullying laws in US states.
High said there are still schoolyards and social cultures that allow bullying and do not help children in distress.
“You’ll still find a lot of places where it’s still ‘boys will be boys’, ‘girls will be girls,'” High said.
Her group helps schools implement more student-focused behavior programs, such as peer groups that can help address bullying and mistreatment of classmates.
She said mental health counselors in schools also needed to be paid more. School counselors earn a median annual salary of $46,778 with a starting salary of $33,000 per year for some, according to San Francisco-based recruiting firm Zippia Inc..
Many school shooters suffered from mental and behavioral health issues and were bullied – or felt bullied and abused, according to reports of these incidents.
Their feelings of ostracism and dissociation can combine dangerously with access to weapons and inadequate responses to mental health issues from parents, schools and law enforcement.
“It comes down to that feeling of connection and connection,” said Amy Klinger, professor of education at Ashland University in Ohio and co-founder of the nonprofit Educators School Safety Network.
Klinger said not all of the mass shooters had been bullied – but all believe they were mistreated and felt disconnected from their schools and classmates.
Klinger said school can be “a living hell” for some children who face endless bullying and abuse from their classmates. Some also live in abusive, traumatic and toxic situations at home.
Some of these same houses might not be supportive of behavioral health counseling while others provide access to firearms and ammunition.
Students and their caregivers may also worry about stigma at school and within families and communities that may accompany mental counseling.
Goldfarb and other mental health professionals said children will often follow suit if one or more parents love guns — or, conversely, are skeptical of behavioral and mental health advice.
“The kid picks up that message and runs with it,” she said.
The federal gun measures were passed earlier this summer after Uvalde allocated $750 million over five years to help states with crisis response programs such as “red flag” laws. who can block purchases and confiscate firearms for mental health reasons.
These efforts come up against constitutional protections for gun ownership via the Second Amendment as well as civil liberties concerns about the extent to which police and recognizance powers should potentially be extended. extended.
The federal bill also offers an additional $510 million in various mental and behavioral health grants for states, localities and school districts.
Social division and politically fueled disagreements over how to deal with mass shootings are also creating disparate reactions to proposed safety solutions in schools.
Republicans opposed to new federal gun controls have called for more police, security guards and layers of campus security.
This may give confidence to some, but not to others.
“I find that students of color or from marginalized communities feel a lot more anxious when there are more police around,” Goldfarb said.
Some school districts have taken a fresh look, with some cutting back on campus cops and security after the 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis officer.
But the pendulum is swinging back to increased security and police footprints on campuses after Uvalde and other recent shootings.
Janesville, Wisc, Police Chief David Moore. near the Illinois border, said law enforcement needed to build trust within communities and schools to get help with early identification and interventions.
“You have to have that trust in the community to have it reach out to you,” said Moore, who has resource officers at local schools in southern Wisconsin.
Law enforcement officials, such as teachers and school staff, struggle to recognize and address behavioral health issues as well as bullying and harassment.
Teachers, many of whom were already very anxious about COVID-19 and stressed by labor shortages, are also getting more training related to the shootings, including crisis intervention and treating serious injuries by ball.
Hoover said districts need to be sensitive to what they add to teachers’ duties. “We have to be very careful about adding one more thing to their plate,” she said.
There are also lingering problems with societal approaches to mental health – on and off campus.
A person with an untreated mental illness is 16 times more likely to be killed by the police, according to a study by the Treatment Advocacy Center. And people with mental disorders account for more than one in four fatal police shootings, according to the Virginia-based group.
A 2020 Harvard University study found that black people are 3.23 times more likely than white people to be killed by police.
The rush to increase security infrastructure, including limiting access points and installing more cameras and layers of fences and barriers, can allay concerns but create anxiety for others.
“You can set it up like a prison, but who wants to send their kids,” said Klinger, who worries that knee-jerk reactions to the latest shootings give the appearance of action but may not pick up the slack. fundamental challenges such as helping children in distress and teachers and staff following safety protocols and dealing with bullying situations.
“When you have an active shooter incident, the immediate response is to do more active shooting drills,” Klinger said.
Hoover said the anxiety over the shootings and the return to school combine with some of the stresses, conflicts and social isolations of the pandemic.
“We do best when we feel stable and secure,” said Hoover, who is also director of the Maryland-based National Center for Safe Supportive Schools. “We haven’t had anything stable or secure for two and a half years now.”
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