Securing Our Schools, Part 2: Addressing Mental Health

Securing Our Schools, Part 2: Addressing Mental Health

School districts in Cleveland, Ohio

This is the second story in a two-part series
about school safety. Click here to read Part 1.

This school year, school districts in Northeast Ohio have done something, from minor to major, to make their schools more secure. Students, teachers and parents are experiencing new procedures for building entry, seeing improvements to door locks, getting familiar with law enforcement officers on the premises, and more.

Keeping children safe remains a pressing concern in schools across the country. In addition to security enhancements, Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, cautions schools to focus on security best practices. He says that the first and best line of defense is a well-trained, highly alert staff and student body where the “people side” of school safety takes the lead over security technology.

“Parents want something visible and tangible that school administrators can point to and say, ‘See, we have improved security,’” Trump says. “The reality is that many of the more meaningful school safety strategies are actually invisible.”

According to Trump, security plans must include creating a climate where students feel comfortable to report weapons, plots and other safety concerns, as well as providing students with emotional, behavioral and mental health supports.

As school districts work to improve their safety measures, many agree that student mental health is a critical part of a strong security plan. Mental health experts report seeing increases in the number of students suffering from anxiety, depression and trauma.

Mike Matoney, CEO of Crossroads, a behavioral healthcare organization, says that one in five students in a classroom has a diagnosable mental health challenge.  

“In Lake County, as an example, we have over 1,000 children being raised by grandparents or other family members due to their parents’ opiate issues,” he says.  “These children are displaced from their homes and may suffer from anxiety and feelings of isolation.”

School counselors now need an expansive skillset to deal with social challenges going on in the buildings. These challenges can manifest as pushing and intimidating other students, disrupting class, or withdrawing socially.

Schools are contracting mental health professionals to help their staff deal with these challenges.

Matoney adds that all nine school districts in Lake County have contracted his organization to counsel students and coach teachers on proactively intervening before situations escalate into violence.

“We conducted a six-week, half-day, three days a week program with students at Wickliffe Middle School and the students improved in positive ways,” Matoney says. “There were less disruptions and attendance increased.”

A new Ohio law is making state-funded grants available to schools seeking to train staff members on identifying students who might be in need of mental health services. The law, known as House Bill 318, not only defines the role and responsibilities of school resource officers, but also requires the officers to complete juvenile psychology training to better respond to mental health issues.

The bill’s co-sponsor, State Rep. John Patterson, D-Jefferson, says that the bill will fund over $12 million for schools to hire school resource officers and train staff members.

“We have over 600 public school districts in Ohio; and, whereas the money will not go as far as we want, it is a first step toward including mental health and school safety in the base cost of educating students,” Jefferson says. “Our goal is to place resource officers in every school and address the critical mental health component.”

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