Joel Sjerven

School shootings have been increasing in severity and frequency over the past decade. The year 2018 had the most school shootings since 1970 with 82 . This is almost twice the 43 shootings in 2017. The year 2018 also had the highest number of students killed at 51.

In response, schools have hardened their environments with more police, metal detectors, and traumatic active-shooter drills. In Indiana this year teachers were grouped, forced to crouch down, and shot execution-style with pellet guns during an active shooter drill. Evidence suggests that hardening schools may be harmful to students. Instead of imitating prison systems, schools need to offer students the emotional and mental health supports they need to thrive.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) makes this its call to action. Its newly released report “Cops and No Counselors: How the Lack of School Mental Health Staff Is Harming Students” explains in detail the benefits of school counselors and social workers.

Young Missourians are particularly in need. Most adolescents in Missouri who need support for serious mental health conditions do not receive it. In 2015 more than 80 percent of Missouri’s youth did not get needed mental health services, according to the Missouri Department of Mental Health. School social workers and counselors are often the first people to assess mental health in young people and connect them to support. Yet social workers are massively understaffed and overworked. In Missouri there was one social worker for every 2065 students during the 2017 school year. This is more than eight times the suggested ratio of one social worker for every 250 students.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that since 1999 suicide rates have increased 30 percent in the United States. Surprisingly, only half of people who die by suicide have been diagnosed with mental health conditions. The rates are more tragic for youth. Children ages 10 to 17 have had a 70 percent increase in suicide rate since 2006 to 2016. This further highlights the need for mental health screening, treatment, and suicide prevention in our country and our schools.

Despite evidence that school’s primary crisis is a failure to address students’ mental health needs – not violence – school districts have continued to harden schools. There has been a persistent shift of resources away from social workers and towards school security guards. These shifts reflect our country’s inequities, as minority students are more likely than white students to attend schools with security guards but no social workers.

Schools with police officers arrest 3.5 times more students than schools without a police presence. School security officers are more likely to make law enforcement referrals or incarcerate their students, perpetuating the school-to-prison pipeline. Research has also shown that the factors that best predict who will be suspended are gender, race, and special education status. This is exemplified when black students are referred for less serious and more subjective issues.

Research has shown numerous, disastrous effects when adolescents are incarcerated. These include higher rates of mental health problems, more violent behaviors, and limited educational and vocational opportunities. These negative outcomes cause a lasting personal expense, but there is also an immediate fiscal cost to incarcerating youth. The Missouri Division of Youth Services reports an annual expense of $82,260 per youth incarcerated in 2017. However, Missouri is reported to have spent $10,313 annually per student for education in 2016. In Missouri it costs 8 times as more to incarcerate our youth than to educate them.

Investing in mental health services in school results in improved attendance, academic achievement, higher graduation rates, and overall school safety, while  lowering rates of suspensions and expulsions. There is a wealth of data showing the need for more social workers and counselors, yet no evidence that school-embedded police improve school safety. Nevertheless, in the United States there are 10 million students in schools with police officers, but no school social workers.

Read “Cops and No Counselors: How the Lack of School Mental Health Staff Is Harming Students” at https://www.aclu.org/report/cops-and-no-counselors.

Joel Sjerven is a current Masters of Social Work student at the University of Missouri St. Louis and is currently completing his practicum at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School.

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