Don’t get us wrong, metal detectors, security fences, double entry doors and other physical safety measures are essential. But short of turning schools into prisons, it is safe to say that the best of school physical security measures will not prevent all acts of school violence. So then what is the answer? What are the essential next steps to better ensuring that are students are safe and sound at school?
From our combined 30+ years of experience working in schools we argue that this vital next step is what we refer to as psychological safety measures. We feel quite strongly that it is a combination of physical AND psychological safety that provides the best combination of preventive interventions, reducing the risk of school violence. Examples of psychological safety measures are numerous, but the following are a few of the more prominent that come to our minds.
School Connectedness One of the more common ways in which an act of school violence is prevented is the ability of a student to break the so called “conspiracy of silence” and tell an adult at school that a peer is at risk for an act of self- or other-directed violence. AND the primary reason for the ability of students to overcome this powerful taboo (which tells them it is virtually a mortal sin to “snitch” on a friend) is a caring connection with trusted adults at school. To the extent that students know that the adults at their school care for them and are truly interested in their personal well-being, students will be more (or less) connected to their school.
Positive Behavioral Supports A school wide approach to supporting positive student behaviors and providing interventions for those students who display behavioral challenges is important to psychological safety. To the extent schools are able to proactively identify behavior challenges and provide the appropriate behavior supports they create environments wherein students are safe.
Social Emotional Learning Just as we teach reading, writing and math, our students also need instruction in managing emotions, conflict resolution, problem solving, etc. This is a critical foundation to ensuring psychological safety, but also greatly impacts academic achievement. Research has shown that schools that integrate social emotional learning into their comprehensive curriculum have higher levels of academic achievement AND lower level of behavior problems.
Accessible Mental Health Supports Finally, we can’t leave this blog without mentioning the importance of available and accessible mental health supports in the school. A sad commentary on our society is that the majority of the approximately 20% of children who need mental health care do not receive services. But of those who do, the entry point for their treatment is the school. Consequently, increasing the numbers of school psychologists, counselors, and social workers is essential. While it is clear that the vast majority of students with mental health challenges do NOT present with a risk for school violence, of those students who do commit such an act, a significant percentage do have mental health challenges. To ensure psychological safety, it is critical that quality mental health care is more accessible.
Stephen E. Brock, Ph.D., NCSP; & Melissa Reeves, Ph.D., NCSP
Safe and Sound Advisors and Professional Contributors