Promoting Student Mental Health and Safer Schools
The Role of School Culture, Risk Assessment, and Threat Management
Mental health and school violence have been a topic of concern for many years in the United States. Several recent school shootings have brought these issues back into the national spotlight and raised important questions about how we can best protect our students. In this article, we discuss the role of mental health in school violence, with a particular emphasis on establishing positive school climates and using risk and threat assessment procedures. We hope this information will be helpful for educators and school mental health professionals as they work to create safe and supportive school environments for all students.
Mental Health and School Safety
The relationship between mental health and school violence is complex, and there is no single cause of school violence. The term school violence is commonly used to refer to school shootings. However, school violence may involve other issues, such as bullying, fighting, or bringing and using weapons at school. Research has shown that certain risk factors can increase the likelihood of violence in schools.
Common risk factors for school violence include:
- Access to firearms
- Exposure to violence in the home or community
- Experiencing bullying
- Mental health problems
While the relationship between mental health problems and school violence is complex, mental health may increase the risk of perpetrating school violence in various ways. Mental health problems can lead to feelings of isolation, desperation, and hopelessness, potentially leading to violent behavior, as students may feel they have no other outlet for their feelings. Mental health problems may also impair judgment and decision-making, making it more difficult for students to control their anger or manage conflict constructively. Finally, mental health problems can also negatively affect students' ability to conform to social norms and follow school rules, increasing their likelihood of disruptive or violent behavior.
Despite the complex relationship, mental health problems are a significant risk factor for school violence. An early study, Safe School Initiative, which examined 37 school shootings in the United States between 1974 and 2000, found that 18 school shooters had a history of mental illness (Vossekuil, Fein, Reddy, Borum, & Modzeleski, 2002). Bullying is also a common risk factor for school violence, and bullying contributes to several mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 20% of students ages 12-18 reported experiencing bullying at school during the 2017-2018 school year. Research has found bullying to be a common risk factor in school shootings, with Lee (2013) reporting that 87% of school shooters had a history of severe, pervasive bullying.
While research has documented a relationship between mental health and school violence, it is essential to note that not all students who exhibit these risk factors will go on to commit acts of school violence. In addition, many students who commit acts of school violence do not display any warning signs, such as threats against others. However, mental health problems are an essential risk factor for school violence. Therefore, school professionals must consider mental health when assessing students' potential risk for violence in schools.
How Can School Professionals Promote School Safety?
School professionals, particularly counselors and psychologists, can play a critical role in promoting school safety and preventing school violence. They can consult with school personnel on how to identify and respond to students who may be at risk for violence or mental health problems, educating them on best practices for establishing safe and supportive school environments. In addition, school mental health professionals can help develop and implement systems for risk and threat assessments. These procedures assist in identifying students who are at risk for mental health problems or who may be planning or considering violence. By intervening early, we can prevent school violence before it occurs.
Creating a safe and supportive school environment for all students may also include promoting positive mental health awareness and implementing violence prevention strategies. Parents should also be involved in their child's education and well-being. When everyone works together, we can create safer schools for all students.
The Importance of Positive School Climates
A positive school climate is supportive, respectful, and conducive to learning for all students. When students feel safe and supported at school, they are more likely to succeed academically and socially. Positive school climates also promote positive mental health outcomes among students. Research has found that students who felt connected to their school were less likely to experience anxiety and depression (Shochet, Dadds, Ham & Montague, 2006). A positive school climate is also essential for preventing school violence. Another study found that students who feel unsafe or uncomfortable at school are more likely to engage in violent behavior (Reidy, Resnick, & Shriver, 2009).
Creating supportive school climates is essential for supporting student mental health and decreasing the occurrence of school violence. There are many things school professionals can do to establish safe and supportive school environments, including:
- Promoting open communication between teachers and students
- Fostering positive relationships between school staff and students
- Establishing a system for identifying and supporting all students experiencing or at risk of mental health problems, victimization, or violence
- Implementing a school-wide system of positive behavioral supports
- Providing opportunities for positive student involvement
Promoting Open Communication Between Teachers and Students
Open communication between teachers and students is essential to create a safe environment where all students feel welcome and valued. There are several steps school administrators can take to support open communication between teachers and students.
First, school administrators can support teachers in becoming approachable and available to students. Training may help teachers develop specific skills, such as active listening, non-judgemental acceptance, and a positive attitude towards all students. When teachers embody these characteristics, at-risk students may feel more comfortable discussing their experiences and seeking help when needed. Openness between teachers and students also allows teachers to identify students who may benefit from a referral to a school counselor or psychologist who can provide emotional and psychological support.
Teachers can also establish classroom environments that facilitate open communication. One crucial strategy for facilitating open communication is establishing a classroom climate where all students are respected, safe, and comfortable.
Strategies for creating a respectful classroom environment include:
- Ensure that all students feel respected and valued
- Setting clear rules and expectations for appropriate behavior
- Maintain consistent consequences for violations of those rules
Teachers can also foster respect and open communication by providing opportunities for all students to participate in classroom activities and discussions.
Strategies for facilitating classroom participation include:
- Calling on students equally to participate, share answers, or ask questions
- Providing time for all students to share their ideas
- Encouraging shy and withdrawn students to participate
Finally, teachers can establish supportive and respectful classroom environments by building positive relationships with all students.
Strategies for building positive teacher-student relationships include:
- Getting to know each student as an individual,
- Showing interest in their lives outside of school
- Being supportive and responsive to their needs
By establishing respectful classroom climates, providing equal opportunities for all students to participate, and building positive teacher-student relationships, teachers can contribute to a school environment where all students feel comfortable communicating with each other and their teachers.
Train teachers on how to effectively communicate with students
Another strategy for building positive school climates is training teachers to communicate with students effectively. Teachers can communicate effectively with students by actively listening to their problems and concerns, setting clear expectations for behavior and communication, and building positive relationships with all students.
When communicating with students, teachers should use active listening skills such as making eye contact, nodding, and repeating what the student said to show they are paying attention and understanding. In addition to active listening, teachers need to set clear expectations for behavior in the classroom. Setting expectations includes outlining rules and consistent consequences for breaking those rules. When students are aware of expectations, they are more likely to follow the rules and behave appropriately. Lastly, building positive relationships with students is crucial for effective communication.
By utilizing active listening skills, setting clear classroom expectations, and building positive relationships with all students, teachers can effectively communicate with students and contribute to a positive school climate that is safe and welcoming for all.
Implementing School-wide Risk Assessments
Implementing school-wide procedures to identify students experiencing or at risk of mental health problems, bullying, or other forms of victimization is essential for promoting safe schools and decreasing incidents of school violence. School mental health professionals, such as school psychologists, are well-positioned to support the development of school-wide programs for identifying students at risk for mental health problems or violence.
School mental health professionals are vital to identifying evidence-based risk assessment tools for identifying students experiencing or at risk for mental health problems or violence. Risk assessment tools may be either universal or targeted. Universal risk assessment tools screen all students in a particular school or district to determine which students are at-risk for potential mental health problems, bullying, or violence. By contrast, targeted risk assessments assess a group of students who are more likely to develop mental health problems, experience victimization, or commit violence due to one or more known risk factors. Risk assessment tools generally involve asking questions about a student's history, behaviors, and symptoms that may be indicative of mental health problems or risk for violence. Students identified as at risk are referred for further evaluation or intervention.
When used to identify students at risk for mental health problems or school violence, risk assessment tools can help students receive the services and support they need to stay safe at school. Early identification and intervention are crucial to preventing school violence, and school-wide or targeted risk assessments are one way to achieve this.
Risk assessments must be confidential, respectful, and culturally responsive. Students should feel safe and comfortable answering the questions truthfully, without fear of reprisal. All information gathered through the risk assessment process should be kept confidential and used only to provide services and support to the student.
School-wide risk assessment procedures are essential for identifying at-risk students, ensuring effective and efficient service provision, promoting safe schools, and reducing potential incidents of school violence. Risk assessments are invaluable for identifying students who may benefit from prevention and early intervention programs when conducted in a confidential, respectful, and culturally responsive manner.
Implementing School-Wide Threat Assessment Protocols
While most students who make threats against others at school do not engage in violence, some students who have committed acts of school violence displayed warning signs, such as making threats, before the incident. Preventing school violence requires school personnel to take all threats seriously and to conduct thorough assessments of all students who make threats. Threat assessment refers to a process for identifying, evaluating, and responding to students who may pose a risk of committing acts of violence against others or themselves. By proactively assessing all threats, regardless of their perceived seriousness, school personnel can take steps to prevent or de-escalate situations that could potentially lead to violence.
Multidisciplinary School Threat Assessment Teams
School threat assessment teams are multidisciplinary teams composed of representatives of various disciplines within a school, such as school administrators, a school counselor or school psychologist, and law enforcement officers, such as a school resource officer. These multidisciplinary teams are responsible for conducting assessments of students who pose a risk of violence and developing individualized plans to manage the risk and address the needs of these students.
Threat Assessment Process
While the specific threat assessment procedures will vary by school or district, threat assessment protocols typically involve the steps of identification, assessment, and response/threat management.
Threat assessment protocols can help school personnel identify students who may pose a threat of violence and take steps to prevent violence before it occurs. When implemented correctly, threat assessment protocols can effectively promote safe schools and ensure that all students receive the services and support they need to succeed.
In the identification stage, threat assessment teams identify students at risk of violence through multiple methods. Making threats of violence towards oneself or others should trigger the threat assessment process. Threat assessments may also result from reports made by teachers or friends concerned about a student’s mental health or behavior. Finally, students identified as possessing one or more known risk factors for violence may trigger a threat assessment.
In the assessment stage, threat assessment teams conduct comprehensive assessments to determine the severity of threats and the risk of violence. During this stage, the threat assessment team should consider the student's history, behaviors, and symptoms that may be indicative of mental health problems or risk for violence.
In the response or management stage, threat assessment teachers develop individualized plans to address the student's needs and reduce the risk of violence. This plan may involve providing services and supports to the student, such as mental health counseling, teaching conflict resolution strategies, or social skills or anger management training. The plan may also involve increasing supervision and monitoring of the student, or involving law enforcement, if necessary.
The relationship between mental health and school violence is complex, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution for reducing violence in all schools. Not all students who experience mental health problems or victimization will commit acts of school violence. However, a history of mental health problems or victimization is a risk factor for school violence and must be addressed. Educators and school mental health professionals must be proactive in identifying at-risk students and assessing threats of violence.
While mental health and school violence are complex topics, schools can take several steps to establish safer school environments, promote student mental health, and reduce school violence risk. Essential steps include establishing welcoming and supportive school climates, encouraging positive relationships between school staff and students, modeling and reinforcing positive behavioral expectations, and providing equal opportunity for all students to feel valued and heard. Establishing school-wide risk assessment procedures for identifying students at risk of mental health problems or violence is also essential for providing appropriate services and preventative interventions. Finally, multidisciplinary school threat assessment teams who can quickly and effectively identify potential threats and manage risk are well-positioned to prevent or de-escalate potentially violent behavior in schools before something tragic happens.
Lee, S. (2014). A comparative study of school shooters in the United States and Germany: Motives and antecedents. Journal of School Violence, 13(4), 282-301.
Shochet, I. M., Dadds, M. R., Ham, D., & Montague, R. (2006). School connectedness is an underemphasized parameter in adolescent mental health: Results of a community prediction study. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 35(2), 170-179.
U.S. Department of Education (2018). Fast facts: Bullying. Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=719
Vossekuil, B., Fein, R. A., Reddy, M., Borum, R., & Modzeleski, W. (2002). The final report and findings of the safe school initiative: Implications for the prevention of school assaults in the United States. Washington, DC: US Secret Service and US Department of Education.
About the author
I am a former special education teacher and aspiring psychologist interested in applying behavioral and psychological principles to promote mental health and reduce crime among youth and young adults.