Voices’ Blog

Keeping Students Safe and Well

Posted:  -  By: Emily Griffey

Written by Dillon Wild, UVA Batten School MPP 2019

In response to recent tragic school shootings, the Virginia General Assembly established the House Select Committee on School Safety in an effort to examine how best to keep our students safe. While Virginia is often seen as a leader in school safety, these tragic events have demonstrated that significant work remains to be done in order to ensure that every child in Virginia is safe from violent harm when they are at school. In a July report to this committee, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission discussed findings from the 2017 Virginia School Safety Audit Survey.

The School Safety Audit Survey found that two-thirds of Virginia schools (1,285 schools) conducted threat assessments during the 2016-2017 school year. These schools conducted a total of 9,238 assessments, of which 50% involved threats of student self-harm. Of all the threat assessments only 40  were considered of the most serious threat level, yet nearly half of these most significant threats involved suicide attempts by students. These statistics on self-harm and suicide capture a significant mental health need amongst students, but we know that other significant mental health needs exist amongst students as well, including depression and anxiety disorders.

When schools were asked about what school safety training topics were most needed by their administration, faculty, and staff, half of all schools reported that training on recognition of mental health problems is needed. When surveyed about the availability of mental health professionals in their schools, 118 schools reported having no mental health professionals in their schools. This data reveals that schools may not be properly equipped to handle the mental health needs of students.

Virginia is in a unique position to improve schools’ abilities to handle these specific threats and enhance schools’ overall capacity to best serve students. In addition to the House Committee, the Governor has created a working group to examine Systems of Care and Safety for School-Aged Youth. We hope these groups will take steps to improve the safety and wellbeing of students throughout the state by increasing the capacity of schools to properly address trauma, adverse childhood experiences, and mental health challenges.

Research shows that positive school climates are related to improved outcomes for students including reduced suspensions, better academic performance, improved student mental health, and lower rates of suicidal thoughts. One means of improving school climate and enhancing student safety is by increasing the number of support staff in schools. These support staff include school counselors, school psychologists, and social workers. In addition to expanding the amount of support staff, ensuring that school staff members are trained to properly handle threats of self-harm is crucial. Part of this training may include school staff becoming more trauma-informed, as we know that Adverse Childhood Experiences and trauma are often underlying causes of significant mental health duress. This is an area that requires further exploration so be on the lookout for more information from Voices!

In addition to the attention devoted by legislators to school safety, the public has demonstrated a significant desire to improve student safety. In a recent poll by the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, 81% of Virginians said that they believe public schools should provide mental health services to students as a core part of their mission. Also, Virginians are increasingly supportive of addressing mental health issues as a better alternative to additional school security measures for improving student safety: 36% of respondents thought the mental health system was a better approach and 20% believe we need both additional mental health services and additional safety measures in schools. With such significant public support, and the opportunities afforded us through the current workgroups on school safety, it is important that advocates work to ensure that strategies for addressing student mental health needs in schools are included in the final proposals and recommendations put forth by these groups.

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