With heavy hearts, we reflect upon another school tragedy last week in our community. Since 1972, our nonprofit organization has healed the impact of childhood trauma through mental health services and human connection.
Like the rest of the nation, we want solutions to prevent school tragedies. We are not only mental health clinicians — we are also parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles ourselves here in Colorado.
We want action to keep kids safe and to feel safe at school. This is vital, not only for their mental wellness and physical safety, but also for their education.
In all that we do, we believe in the power of relationships, mental wellness and early intervention here at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development.
We believe it is also the path to school safety. In her article Here’s How To Prevent The Next School Shooting, Experts Say Anya Kamenetz found that the best means to curb school violence is prevention via a “softer” public health approach.
“Make them softer,” Kamenetz writes, “by improving social and emotional health.” Rather than lock people out and arm ourselves, we need to pull more people in — including our children. We need to really know them.
According to Dr. Peter Langman, a sought-after expert on the psychology of young people who commit rampage school shootings, most perpetrators in these tragedies have a traumatic background or severe mental illness.
These children are typically isolated from others. Educators know that the influence of just one caring adult in a child’s life can make a dramatic positive impact (Walsh, 2015). But to make connections with all school children, including deeply troubled children, takes extensive intervention.
It takes many people working together to recognize that a child is troubled, to know and connect with him or her and to provide the child with effective mental health services.
We work with deeply troubled children every day. Those in our program have experienced childhood trauma and often have co-morbid mental illnesses.
While the children we treat are not homicidal, they can act out in dangerous ways at times. And intervention prevents more serious complications. Our approach — the foundation of our work — lies primarily in helping the children authentically connect with others.
We do it by creating our own “villages.” When children come to IACD for treatment, they live with therapeutic treatment families — in real homes — while they also get attention from clinicians to address their mental health needs.
And they attend real public schools. IACD communities are intentionally set in small towns with small districts. We do not shield the children from the community. Rather, our highly specialized clinicians, local police officers, public school teachers and therapeutic parents walk alongside the children, together.
Communication, relationships and mental health intervention are our safety tools.
To emulate a “village approach” on a large scale, schools nationwide will need more people — more “villagers.” In our fast-paced, independent, disconnected society, we’ve forgotten how much we need one another.
And our children are paying the price. In Rethinking School Safety: Communities and Schools Working Together, the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) calls for a community-wide approach to safe learning environments.
“Effective school safety starts with prevention; provides for students’ mental health; integrates physical and psychological safety; and engages schools, families, and communities as partners,” NASP states.
It takes a community of people, including mental health experts, working together. It is beyond the scope of one parent, teacher or counselor.
So, this relatively new problem of school violence still comes back to an old debate — school funding.
“We know what works, but schools need the resources — financial and human — to implement and sustain the practices that will truly make our children and schools safe from the inside out.”
Educators, parents and students are demanding it. Last week, STEM parents spoke out at a county commissioners meeting demanding more funding for school safety measures and mental health services.
Over one hundred STEM students walked out of a vigil, frustrated with politicians in attendance, spontaneously chanting, “mental health, mental health.” And teachers in Oregon walked out of 600 schools demanding funding for more support staff, including mental health counselors.
Funding does not only support education — it secures students’ safety and wellness.
Nobody has the one answer to keep all of our kids everywhere safe in school. But among the many options on the table, increasing mental, social and emotional wellness and human connection can withstand time. Alarms can fail and metal detectors can wear.
But if we invest the resources, connected, mentally healthy and aware communities can span generations. Let’s educate and advocate for the wellness of our nation — for the happiness, wellness and future of our children.
It’s not an easy task. But a public health approach to mental wellness is feasible when we make it a priority.
Nichole Noonan is the Director of Communications for the Institute for Attachment and Child Development in Littleton.