Searching in all the wrong places. Every school should have a mental-health clinic

To the Editor:

How many times since Columbine have we stared at panicked, frightened, harried children running for their very lives from a school building, seeking shelter from what they fear may be their last day on Earth?

These youth now enter the at-risk health category of individuals who have experienced ACEs — adverse childhood experiences — prior to age 18, including evidence of emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse that can impinge upon the quality of their future life experiences.

Onlookers duly shocked will be quick to decry the ease with which perpetrators can access deadly weapons and others will just as quickly state a concern we not trample on the Second Amendment to fix a different problem, so no one bothers to look at the reality of what's right in front of us.

Only since the horrific tragedy of Columbine, and up until the present, where we’ve had 18 school shootings this year in which every event has been carried out by a student or former student (suspended and/or expelled from school) have we begun to realize the severity of the situation.

The profile of the shooter is boringly similar yet profoundly sad, tragic, and symptomatic and just maybe indicative of our solution. Do we ever hear the question asked: What is it about the school environment/culture that is so painfully stressful that a student would harbor such deep, dark, foreboding thoughts and feelings of rage that he plots the death and destruction of his classmates and teachers?

We know from anecdotal information that this student tends to be isolated, different, bullied, withdrawn, and often does not fit in. This is not the only sign, however. There are a few more. They may even show suicidal tendencies.

The point is that, while we talk about hardening our schools, what about looking to catch up with the fact that our students and their lives are more complex than ever before and as a result students need more emotional and psychological help than previously rendered — much more?

A guidance counselor assigned to 150 children doesn’t meet the need and two social workers assigned to a building don’t come near to the coverage needed, and a psychologist or psychiatrist on referral are all a far cry from what is needed in a prepared modern school.

Every school should have a mental-health clinic, an assessment protocol for catching the disenfranchised students, a program of engagement for suspended and even expelled students because they are high-risk in our communities and still a responsibility.

Some parents may decide to opt for home-schooling — not because home-schooling provides a richer, more complete educational and social experience but primarily because it avoids the fear of being in what is considered “a shooting gallery.”

Inner-city schools are leaders. They have regrettably experienced on a daily basis all kinds of violence and trauma. With limited resources, they have struggled and suffered.

While we don't see the children running out of the building the way we do in suburban schools, we see teachers not wanting to work in inner cities, being afraid, students fearing gang activity and reverting to all kinds of behavior to survive as their opportunity for an education fritters away.

What are we doing to protect students and change these conditions?

We have great people dedicated to educating our young people during the most formative points of their lives — as we’ve seen, actually willing to give up their lives for them.

We need to look inward regarding the horrific matter of school shootings. Our schools need to be assessed for protocols to identify outliers, that is, the student who is isolated, unwelcome, different, bullied, suspended, and/or expelled. These students need to be challenged. We need to have in place a first-rate effective program of acceptance and accountability that embraces the fringe student and their family.

The school needs to initiate with its school board a mental-health clinic so that, faced with burdensome problems, its young population has access to timely professional assistance and its staff has recourse to professional consultation.

Students from the earliest grades need to be brought into the school safety plan of not just ducking, egressing the building, but daily looking around and taking concern that their fellow classmates are “OK.” That OK needs to be defined and taught by our educational leaders of each school unit and the “what to do if not OK” as well.

This is the critical area that administrators, teachers, and students can impact like no other — this is their turf, their place to expend energy making it safe for all.

Without acknowledging the deficits in the current system and developing clear protocols to help with prevention, we will continue to report ongoing tragedies within our school systems. The time is now, and change can prevent and protect future generations from witnessing and experiencing these devastating traumatic events.

W. Brian Barr


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