By: Leslie Lagerstrom & Todd A. Savage, Ph.D., NCSP
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. School staff and school-based mental health professionals work every day to support the mental health, physical, and psychological safety of all children and youth in school, particularly students who are bullied ostracized, isolated or who lack social support at school, at home, or in the community.
Transgender and other gender-diverse students, even those who demonstrate strong resiliency skills are particularly vulnerable for poor mental health outcomes due to these and other factors. Strong home-school collaboration and partnerships can bolster transgender and other gender-diverse students’ mental health, which increases their ability to perform successfully in academics and beyond; consider one family’s story.
Sam was 10 years old the first time we discovered he was exploring ways to commit suicide. Ten years old. I remember the terror that ran down my spine that day when we learned he wanted to end his life. What I thought was just another Wednesday, turned out to be the day my son’s classmates broke his spirit.
As a transgender youth, Sam suffered from daily incidents of bullying and harassment, and this day was no exception. Boarding the bus that morning, he was greeted with the usual shuffling of backpacks and kids quickly moving from one seat to another so that he could not sit next to them. The first whispers, stares and laughs of the day began on that bus as he self-consciously walked down the narrow aisle looking for a seat.
At school, the bullying ramped up…loud whispers in the halls that were meant to be heard; giggles during roll call when the teacher read the name ‘Samuel’ for the child that was once known as Samantha; body language intended to intimidate; and classmates calling Sam ‘It’ under the direction of their parents, because Sam was not conforming to their understanding of gender.
In science class Sam’s stomach filled with butterflies when he heard the teacher say, “Pick a lab partner.” He already knew how this scene would end because he had been there too many times before, standing awkwardly alone while his classmates eagerly rearranged their chairs, to partner with their pals. Sam was once again the odd man out because nobody wanted to be paired with that kid who “…used to be a girl.”
Lunch was spent alone in an alcove in the basement. This was his safe space where he ate alone each day because he was afraid to walk through the school lunchroom. By afternoon he needed to use a restroom but there were none that were safe and so he decided to hold it, just like he had done for the last 45 school days, even when this practice resulted in chronic bladder infections. The last hour of the day he had gym class, where he was taunted for standing with the boys when the teacher instructed the class to line up by gender. His day was spent trying to avoid one form of mental abuse after another, but at the age of 10 he was not yet equipped to protect himself from emotional harm. His spirit broken, he decided he had had enough.
Luckily for our family, we were able to mitigate some of the pain his classmates inflicted that day – enough that he stopped thinking about harming himself for a while. Sadly, this is what an average day looks like for many transgender and gender diverse kids.
I share Sam’s experience with you to illustrate the type of behavior that threatens the mental health of countless students every single day. Disrespectful behavior that is always at someone else’s expense, the cost of which, istoo high for any child or family to pay. In extreme cases the consequences culminate in violence, while in other incidences children choose to harm themselves or simply sink into a pit of despair and depression.
As the mom of a transgender child that has walked alongside him through the psychological mine fields created by his classmates, I know the mental toll they have taken. At home we coach him to focus on the positive, but human nature sneaks in on particularly bad days, only allowing him to remember the hurt. When you think about it, schools go to great lengths to ensure the physical well-being of students, but the same cannot be said for their mental health. I truly believe that not until our schools care equally about their students’ physical and mental well-being, will our children be safe and sound in the classroom.
Leslie Lagerstrom is the creator of the blog Transparenthood™, which chronicles her family’s experience raising a transgender child. She is a contributor to The Huffington Post and her essays can be found in two anthologies, Mamas Write and Nothing But the Truth So Help Me God. Committed to spreading awareness on the subject of transgender children, Leslie frequently shares her family’s story, speaking in front of audiences across the nation.
Todd A. Savage, Ph.D., NCSP, is a professor in the school psychology program at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls (UWRF); he is also a past president of the National Association of School Psychologists. Dr. Savage’s scholarly research interests include culturally-responsive practice; social justice; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues in education; and school safety and crisis prevention, preparedness, and intervention. He has conducted numerous professional development workshops on gender diversity in schools for administrators, teachers, school-based mental health professionals, and staff members locally, regionally, and nationally throughout the past five years.
- Students are dissatisfied with the state of school safety and see it very differently from educators and parents.
- Our current state of readiness against safety threats is too narrow, with not enough input from the entire school community.
- A difference in safety perceptions exists among schools with fewer than 500 students.
NEWTOWN, Conn.—May 7, 2018—Safe and Sound Schools (SASS), a nonprofit organization that delivers crisis-prevention, response and recovery programs for schools, today published its “State of School Safety Report 2018,” the results of its first-ever survey exploring perceptions of safety at schools among parents, students, educators, and the general public. The findings outline perceptions among stakeholders, and looks at the current state of threats, from threats received to future threats, as well as preparedness for those safety risks.
The first major finding of the survey is that a substantial communication gap exists between educators and other stakeholders, namely parents and students. Educators are more confident in their overall preparedness, safety and ability to handle a wide array of safety threats, perceived shortcomings, expertise and communications than other stakeholder groups. This confidence, however, translates into a knowledge gap for others in the school community.
“The State of School Safety survey points to the need for educators and administrators to focus on simple, honest communication to parents and students, and listen more to their concerns and feedback,” said Michele Gay, executive director and co-founder of Safe and Sound Schools. “Opening up avenues for communication will empower school communities to bring to light additional vulnerabilities and solutions, speed up implementation of safety initiatives and reduce anxiety associated with lack of knowledge.”
In this figure from the State of School Safety Report, we see educators report higher levels of feeling “extremely or very safe” with their level of preparedness for any safety incident, as compared to parents, students, and the general community.
Additional survey highlights include:
- Students deserve a seat at the school-safety table. Only half of students surveyed feel safe when they are at school. Students also believe their school is in denial that it could be in danger, and more than half of students surveyed think there is a lack of awareness about school safety issues and that their school has a false sense of security that things happening around the country couldn’t happen in their school.
- Threat assessment must be broadened beyond school-based shootings to include other common threats to school safety. These include bullying, weather, physical abuse, suicide, and racially- or minority-focused vandalism. All four respondent groups reported having seen more of these threats than other threats.
- Schools need to involve a team of experts in planning. When asked who is responsible for school safety in their communities, parents, students, educators and general community members had different rankings, assigning different levels of accountability among the wide range of school safety stakeholders. By bringing together experts in mental health and wellness, school resource officers, public safety officials, students, parents and school-based teachers and staff, school communities can garner greater awareness for what is working—and what is not—in school safety.
- A difference in safety perceptions exists among schools with fewer than 500 students. Educators at small schools—those with fewer than 500 students—report that students feel safe at school at a higher rate than their peers at larger schools. However, students at smaller schools are also less aware of their schools’ safety team and report constrained financial resources.
Michele Gay and Alissa Parker founded Safe and Sound Schools on May 3, 2013, after their respective daughters, Josephine Gay and Emilie Parker, were killed in the tragic Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Conn. The State of School Safety Report marks the fifth anniversary of the organization’s founding, and highlights progress made and opportunities for improvement in school safety. The survey, conducted in early 2018, received 2,872 respondents across four main stakeholder groups: parents of students, students in middle or high school, educators (teachers and other professionals working in schools), and the public at large.
“We live in a climate of anxiety, fear and frustration when it comes to school safety, yet the people who matter most aren’t necessarily heard from,” said Alissa Parker, co-founder of SASS. “Our report has the power to be incredibly instructive for schools across the U.S., as we’ve identified opportunities for near-term improvements. Most important, it shows that we need to give teachers, students, educators and communities the space to bring their insight and ideas to the table in conversations about their school safety plans. By improving communication among a wider range of stakeholders, we can inherently improve our expertise and training.”
Safe and Sound Schools will continue its work to improve overall awareness and resources supporting crisis prevention, response and recovery for improved school safety. To read the full report, please visit the Safe and Sound Schools research page: www.safeandsoundschools.org/research.
About Safe and Sound Schools
Founded in 2013, Safe and Sound Schools works with school communities and mental health, law enforcement, and safety professionals to create and ensure the safest possible learning environment for all youth. The non-profit organization, started by parents who lost their children in the tragedy at Sandy Hook, delivers crisis-prevention, response, and recovery programs, tools, and resources, backed by national experts, to educate all members of the school community, from students and parents, to teachers and administrators, to law enforcement and local leaders. Winner of the 2015 SBANE New England Innovation Award for nonprofits, Safe and Sound Schools continues to answer the growing needs of school communities with custom programs, assessments, and training, reaching schools in every state in the country. For more information, visit www.safeandsoundschools.org.
When I sat down to talk with John McDonald, a nationally-recognized school security expert, I knew I had to share some of his thoughts and lessons with you. So I recorded our conversation and edited down some key points for you. This is the first conversation in a series we’re calling “The Sound Off.” More on that later this year…
Back to John. This man is quite simply, incredible.
Even though John joined Jefferson County after the Columbine shooting, he has endured three horrendous experiences… things we hope nobody else has to go through… one abduction and two shootings. Suffice it to say, we can all learn from John. He has so much experience, working for 10-plus years in his community, honing communications, processes, and overall security. He knows what works, and what doesn’t.
Sure, John’s commitment to his school community is impressive. But his accomplishments highlight the importance of having someone dedicated to school safety. From the assessments, training, and ongoing discussions he drives, John is involving the whole community and changing perceptions about school safety.
We all thank you, John, for all you do to keep these school communities safe. You are a beacon of strength, a foundation of hope, and thread of connection helping to keep your community strong.
Alissa Parker, Co-founder of Safe and Sound Schools
With the close of this year’s first quarter, we’re excited to share an update for January, February, and March.
We started the year with a visit to Westport High School in Massachusetts. During her visit, Co-founder Michele Gay shared her story and introduced the Safe and Sound Youth Council to students and staff. Later in January, Michele made her way to Pennsylvania to present for staff and shared Safe and Sound Schools’ resources and programs with the Hazleton Area School District.
Early in February, Michele traveled to Georgetown, South Carolina, where she presented first for students and staff and then for the community. Shortly after, she traveled to Wisconsin to present for the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association. In late February, Co-founder Alissa Parker headed to the Cincinnati area, where she shared her story and practical ways to improve school safety with community members. Soon after, Michele traveled back to South Carolina to attend the South Carolina Association School Administrators School Safety Summit, where she shared her story and lessons learned in school safety. February community visits concluded in Michele’s home state of Maryland, where she attended Howard County’s school safety community meeting to advocate for funding and improved safety measures and training. Finally, Michele conducted a nationwide webinar with School Messenger, citing the power of communication capability and planning for school-based crisis management.
March community visits kicked off with a visit to Little Rock, Arkansas, where Safe and Sound Speaker and Mental Health Advisor, Dr. Stephen Brock, presented on bullying and suicide prevention for the Arkansas Mental Health in Education Association (ARMEA). The following week, Alissa traveled to Arlington, Virginia to present at the National PTA Legislative Conference, while Michele gathered with Lisa Hamp, Virginia Tech Survivor; Dr. Melissa Reeves, School-Based Mental Health Expert; Dr. CJ Huff, former superintendent of the Joplin, Missouri Schools; Kiki Lebya, Columbine survivor and teacher; John McDonald, school security and safety expert; and Mac Hardy of the National Association of School Resource Officers to kick off the Maryland School Safety Initiative, sponsored by the Maryland Center for School Safety and The BFG Foundation of Maryland. This year’s theme, Recovering the School Community from Crisis, brought together inspiring stories of recovery and resiliency and was particularly timely in the wake of several national school-based crisis. Stay tuned for more travel and trainings across Maryland as part of this year’s Maryland School Safety Initiative.
Also in March, Raptor Technologies hosted Dr. CJ Huff once again in a nationally attended school safety webinar on called “Seven Leadership Lessons.” And the University at Buffalo hosted the 15th Annual Safe Schools Initiative Seminar, where Michele and Dr. Amanda Nickerson presented alongside Mo Canady, Safe and Sound Advisor and Executive Director for the National Association of School Resource Officers. While Safe and Sound speaker and Virginia Tech survivor, Lisa Hamp, spoke at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania, Michele spoke in Wellesley, Massachusetts where she shared her story and invited community members to rethink school safety as a community. The following day, Michele traveled to Illinois to speak at the Illinois Fire Inspectors Association Conference, accompanied by Safe and Sound speaker and special advisor, Frank DeAngelis. Several days after this conference, Frank traveled to Georgia where he presented for the Eastside High School community. Later, Safe and Sound speaker Lisa Hamp traveled to Chicago to present her survivor’s story to Chicago area school leaders. The first quarter concluded with Michele and Dr. Melissa Reeves joining forces with Morris County, New Jersey school and law enforcement leaders to create a customized threat assessment matrix for assessing and managing threats to school safety.
Our first quarter was not only defined by the communities we visited and the relationships we forged during this period, it was also defined by the tragic events that took place during this time. We found ourselves deeply inspired by the student-led movements and took action to support the STOP School Violence Act of 2018. We also launched a national survey focusing on school safety perceptions and are currently analyzing the data to provide insights in the form of our first annual “State of School Safety” report to help school communities better tackle the myriad challenges of school safety. Stay tuned for our findings later in the spring.
To support Safe and Sound Schools and our mission, you can share our materials, donate, shop our School Store, or purchase an Inspire Change bracelet from Jammin Hammer Jewelry. Learn more about Jammin Hammer’s fundraiser for Safe and Sound Schools, here.
As parents of children with autism, we already know firsthand the many challenges associated with keeping our kids safe, both in and out of school. The nature of our child’s disorder often presents a wide range of behaviors that can make their safety our full-time job. Wandering/elopement, PICA, choking, water fixations, inability to communicate in an emergency, and general situational fearlessness mark a few of the many things we face (or simply worry about) on a daily basis.
The statistics from the National Autism Association speak for themselves:
- Approximately 48% of children with an ASD attempt to elope from a safe environment, a rate nearly four times higher than their unaffected siblings
- Two in three parents of elopers have experienced a traffic injury “close call”
- More than one-third of ASD children who wander/elope are never or rarely able to communicate their name, address, or phone number
I know how easy it is to become consumed with debilitating fear every time your child is out of your sight. When my daughter, Jenna, was younger, I often felt powerless to protect her – or, to even be able to predict how she would react and respond in any given situation. Now, as she’s approaching 15-years old, I understand that while parents of children with autism have to be exceptionally vigilant at all times, we do have resources and options available to support us in our efforts to keep them keep them safe.
Create Your Safety Plan
Every family has their own safety routines for their child with autism. Over the years, my husband, Jonathan, and I have learned and implemented various tools, tips, and technologies into a cohesive safety plan for Jenna. For example, we know that every time we enter a room, we assess available exits and create a strategy that ensures Jenna is continuously monitored by one of us. We keep a window decal on Jenna’s side of the car that alerts first responders that Jenna is unable to communicate her needs in the event of an accident, and we take photos of her, almost daily, in case she wanders off and we need to tell responders what she was wearing.
Often, parents assume that a 1:1 aide will be able to handle whatever safety issues arise and make modifications on the fly. It is important to be sure that the aide is well trained and equipped to support your child in a variety of emergency situations. Does your child’s aide carry emergency essentials that your child might require (lollipops to stay quiet during lockdown, fidget toys to stay occupied, first aide items)? Has he/she been trained in all safety protocols and equipped to carry them out? Does he/she have keys to the classroom door? What about communication capability (i.e radio, cell phone, office call button, access to the PA system)? Or a wheelchair or “stair chair” to assist in transporting or evacuating your child if necessary?
Other useful resources we’ve incorporated into our safety routines include:
Most parents don’t realize they can have safety goals and emergency plans outlined in their child’s IEP. Always discuss your child’s specific needs with the school administration and Special Education director to put a detailed plan in place.
We use the SafetyNet tracking device to help keep our daughter safe. Worn on a child’s ankle or wrist, this device ensures that should she wander off while wearing the tracker, police/fire department can quickly locate her.
Similarly, many parents use the Life360 app for children who have their own smartphone.
We installed an active alarm system in our home that instantly alerts us whenever a door or window opens. The alarm enables us to respond quickly should Jenna wander off. There are many low tech ways to alarm the doors of your home, from hanging bells to installing individual door alarms that you can find at your local hardware store.
Keep those “kid safety locks” on at all times to ensure your child can’t open the car door while the vehicle is in motion. Yes, you will inevitably inadvertently lock your adult friends in your backseat at some point – they will forgive you.
Partnering with First Responders
Our town offers the Erin Program; a program created specifically for special needs families. Parents create an emergency profile for their child to help first responders in the event of an emergency. All personal information is securely stored and not made public. Contact your local police or fire department to see if your town offers this program or something similar.
No matter how many apps we download or strategies we implement, we will always worry about our children and their safety – as all parents do. However, for parents of children with autism, continuously tapping into the resources available to us can deliver the much-needed peace of mind that we are doing everything we can to advocate for and protect our kids at all times.
Susan Parziale is the Administrative Coordinator for Safe and Sound Schools and lives in Boston.
In honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the many survivors, and friends and families affected by sexual assault, we share Katie’s story of hope and perseverance.
As an incoming college freshman, I was so excited to start college and live independently for the first time. I was encouraged to be outgoing and social with my peers to make new friends. I jumped in whole-heartedly. My suite mates and I grew close quickly and spent lots of time meeting new people in the first few weeks of school. I was having a great experience.
However, only two weeks into the semester, my experience turned into a nightmare. I met a fellow student on my dorm floor. He invited my roommate and I to decorate his dorm room. We were happy to help. Once there, he offered us both alcoholic drinks. I decided to accept his offer, but my roommate had class and decided not to drink. When it was time for my roommate to leave for class, I headed to the door with her; but he insisted that I stay and watch a movie. I agreed.
Shortly after my roommate left, my mind became foggy and he started making sexual advances. I no longer knew what was happening and lost touch with reality. I blacked out.
The next morning, I woke up to a bruised and bloody body. I felt sick and had a bad headache. It was a struggle to get out of bed. I was scared and did not know where to turn.
My parents had lectured me about the dangers of drinking, so I decided not to tell them what happened initially after the incident. No college student wants to tell her parents something like this, but ultimately, I decided to tell them. Thankfully, they were more understanding than I expected. In hindsight, I recommend that all students have a support person, a trusted adult with whom they can confide in case something serious happens on campus. With support, I believe I would have made different decisions and better navigated the reporting process.
Although I did decide to go to the hospital, I did not initially call 911 or report my rape to the police. At the hospital, I was told that I could file a “delayed report.” Overwhelmed with the idea of reporting to the police, I chose this option. However, when I did file with the local police, I was told that it was too late to investigate. My “complaint” was closed and labeled as a “non-criminal, suspicious condition;” therefore, no action was taken.
I decided to turn to the University for help. Initially, they seemed supportive and promised academic assistance and free medical treatment. Filing a Title IX complaint, which protects a victim’s rights to a safe academic environment, was optional, and not necessary to get support. However, I was afraid of my offender and requested an investigation because my fear of running into him affected my class attendance and ability to complete assignments.
I struggled through the rest of the semester. I was promised both academic support and a safe learning environment but received neither. I didn’t feel safe and felt misunderstood by the college administration that I had turned to for help. The college conducted a haphazard investigation, which decided my offender was not at fault, even though I had a hospital exam with pictures of injuries and he admitted to giving me alcohol and having sex.
I learned that individual student interests might not be the first priority of a school. I also learned to be cautious when deciding to use support services on campus. It is important to consider finding independent, legal counsel or reaching out to a free support organization such as One Love or Take Back the Night for guidance and support. Hiring a lawyer is something I did not think I needed to do at the time, but later, I regretted not finding one to help with the investigation process and to ensure my rights.
Once I did consult with an attorney, it was recommended that I have my hair tested for drugs. The hair test came back positive for a Benzodiazepine, which I never took voluntarily. Many drugs leave the body quickly and do not show up on minimal screenings in hospital rape exams.
Two years later, I look back on my nightmare. I realize that I survived a difficult time because I learned to ask for help. My friends and family supported me when justice failed. I left the University and returned home to heal. I have started taking classes again at a school nearby. I found counseling and began educating students and supporting other sexual assault victims as part of my healing.
The best advice I could give to anyone struggling with sexual assault or any traumatic experience is to persevere and know that things will eventually get better. Healing can take a long time, but finding people who embrace and support you through your struggles can help you get through it.
For more information and resources on dating violence, sexual assault prevention and recovery, please visit the following websites: