One of the biggest obstacles facing schools when it comes to improving school safety is recognizing and addressing mental health issues early, according to the members of the Arkansas School Safety Commission's mental health and prevention subcommittee.
"We have to make it OK to talk to people and say that I am worried about this person, that we don't perceive them as a threat but we are just concerned," said Lori Poston, vice president of Clinical Services for the Northeast Region of Arisa Health and head of the mental health and prevention subcommittee. "The more people in general understand that, and fight that silence of mental health, is big.
"Not being afraid to check in on somebody is a huge step."
Mental health and prevention is one of the five subcommittees that make up the Arkansas School Safety Commission. Each focuses on a specific aspect related to school safety. The five subcommittees are mental health and prevention; law enforcement and security; audits, emergency operations plans and drills; intelligence and communication; and physical securities.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson reinstated the Arkansas School Safety Commission on June 10 in the wake of a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 students and two teachers dead. The commission was tasked with re-examining the current state of school safety in Arkansas and providing updates to the commission's original report, which was released in March of 2018.
That original commission submitted 30 recommendations -- which school districts were encouraged but not required to adopt -- in its 124-page report. Legislators have used the report to help form additional laws related to school safety.
During a special session last week, state legislators approved the transfer of $50 million in state surplus funds to a restricted reserve fund to address recommendations made by the school safety commission. Hutchinson said he anticipates funds will be used for upgrades in security or to address specific recommendations that come from the safety commission's report.
The commission is awaiting results from a survey that was recently sent out to schools to see what their safety needs are. The commission will submit a final report to Hutchinson by the end of November.
One of the primary points addressed by the mental health and prevention subcommittee in its interim report was the need for the Arkansas Department of Education and the Arkansas Center for School Safety to work in collaboration to develop and provide training on data analysis and creating action plans to address needs related to school climate.
Some students who spoke with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette expressed concerns about feelings of isolation and uncertainty since returning to campus in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic. Students' names were withheld because of concerns about potential backlash from fellow students and others.
"I see it daily," said Kendria Jones, an eighth-grade teacher. "There is no outlet. The things that they are enduring you can see in their performance. There is no outlet for them to feel safe."
Some students said the rising number of school shootings over the past few years has heightened concerns and fear among students.
"You hear stories of these shooting incidents and it rocks your world,"a senior from Van Buren High School said. "This is supposed to be a safe place, but it's not. It creates anxiety, and you are just scared."
A student from the Bentonville School District said she has always loved school and considered it to be a safe spot, but that has changed.
"When I saw all these shootings happen, I thought to myself, this is not supposed to be a place where I fear for my life," she said. "It should be where I go and talk to people and learn."
Now when she goes to school events, she said she is on guard.
"Every social event I go to for the school, I am searching for the nearest law enforcement officer," she said. "It's a crazy and weird society we are living in."
One of the primary recommendations by the subcommittee is that school districts should provide access to training in youth mental health first aid for all personnel who interact with students. It also recommended schools have at least one youth mental health first-aid trainer who promotes sustainability and ongoing staff development, and that all classified school staff take a free one-hour mental health basic awareness class.
Dr. Tricia Benish, a licensed psychologist and director of mental health and behavior services for the Greenbrier School District, told the subcommittee that educating staff about youth mental health first aid has had a broad impact on the district.
Benish said positive mental health and well-being are associated with increased academic success, better attendance rates, positive relationships, better problem-solving skills and overall resilience, among other things.
"We are dispelling myths about mental illness and reducing the stigma associated with it," Benish told the subcommittee. "Our staff commonly report feeling increased confidence to intervene and better knowing how to help our young people after receiving the training."
The subcommittee also recommended that all students have access to mental health services, whether in person at school or through telehealth. The report noted access to mental health services for students is inconsistent across the state, and is "especially problematic" in more rural areas where there are fewer providers and fewer resources for agencies.
"There is a workforce shortage across the state, and that doesn't just affect mental health therapists, but it's definitely having an effect on the mental health field in Arkansas," Poston said. "We probably have a dozen open therapist positions just for our area alone. It's an ongoing issue that providers across the state are feeling."
A lack of awareness among students regarding available mental health resources is another problem.
"Sometimes there are resources available, but we don't know about them," said a recent graduate of the Little Rock School District. "There are a lot of people trying to help and do things, but we don't have the time to reach out, or we don't have the proper resources to address it."
School districts also should implement a positive climate program that deters bullying behaviors and promotes social emotional learning and positive peer relationships, the interim report said.
One of the main concerns Poston encounters involves social media. Poston said most children are not emotionally ready to handle some of the things that appear on social media.
"Social media is kind of that monster that has grown and grown," she said. "You can't really kill it, but you can learn how to manage it and handle it safely."
Jones, the eighth-grade teacher, said oftentimes what a student sees on social media carries over into the classroom.
"They are not looking at the consequences, just that they could be popular," she said. "There are no pros and cons for them. It has gotten to the point where it has become dangerous, because it's pushing kids to commit bodily harm or worse to themselves."
Another contributing factor, Poston said, is that oftentimes children can't escape any mistake they make because of social media.
"There is a whole generation of kids that know if anything embarrassing or negative happens to them, there is a high chance that it's being recorded and posted on social media," she said. "Kids can't live anything down that happens to them, and that is a lot to live with."
It also can lead to cyber-bullying, which can create additional trauma.
"We have cases of cyber-bullying in America going back decades, to the Myspace era, that have led to suicides," Poston said. "It's preventable, but if you've got a child who has tendencies for depression and an incident on social media blows up, it can spiral quickly into something tragic or even fatal."
The subcommittee also recommended that all school districts establish a behavioral threat assessment team.
This team would follow best practices for team composition and process and would require all team members receive basic and advanced behavioral threat assessment training through the Arkansas Center for School Safety.
The center provides education, training, resources and technical assistance to educators and law enforcement to help provide children with a safe environment in hopes of helping them reach their academic potential.
Through a partnership between the Criminal Justice Institute and the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, it offers a catalog of basic and specialty school safety training courses to law enforcement and school personnel, including administrators, teachers, staff, counselors and school security officers.
The subcommittee also recommended creating a school safety tip line committee, which would investigate strategies used in other states and best practices to establish and implement a statewide school safety tip line.
The purpose of the behavioural threat assessment team and a statewide tip line would be to identify at-risk students as early as possible and to provide timely and appropriate support and resources, which would include mental health services.
Having a coordinated crisis response team to mitigate the emotional impact of a traumatic event that impacts a district is among the recommendations as well.
The interim report states that National Organization for Victim Assistance crisis response training should be made available to school personnel and key stakeholders throughout the state and ensure all school districts receive relevant training information in a timely manner.
The School Safety Commission will continue meeting weekly before finalizing its recommendations, which must be submitted to the governor by the end of November.