The statistics are shocking — 2 million acts of violence in schools, 2,000 student suicides, and more than 1 million threats against schools take place each year in the United States.
School violence and mass shootings have become so common that the first members of the “Lockdown Generation” graduated in 2018. That’s a whole generation growing up with lockdown drills happening as frequently as fire drills.
There are encouraging statistics, too. Before their acts of violence took place, 80 percent of school shooters told someone about their plans. Similarly, before taking their own lives, 7 out of 10 people shared their intention or gave some type of warning or indication.
Those signals provide a window to prevent unimaginable tragedy, which is the driving message behind national Say Something Week (#SaySomething).
Launched by the nonprofit organization Sandy Hook Promise, Say Something empowers youth to be a part of the solution to reduce school violence.
For the 2019 edition, during the week of February 25 to March 1, 2019, middle and high school students will learn how to recognize, intervene, and help people before they hurt themselves or others through the Say Something program.
The program focuses on three steps:
- Looking for warning signs, signals, and threats — especially on social media
- Acting immediately and taking signs, signals, and threats seriously
- Saying something to a trusted adult like a parent, teacher, or community leaders
The impact of mental wellness in school
Thanks to rigorous training, security, and safety plans, schools should be one of the most secure places in a community. But there’s more work to be done to prevent tragedies in the first place. While the causes behind violence and suicide are complex, a solid foundation for creating safer schools rests in encouraging the development of positive mental health and well-being for all students.
Mental disorders affect students at every grade level, disrupting the way they learn, behave, or handle their emotions. A survey from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention highlights how big the problem is. About 4.4 million children aged 3-17 years have been diagnosed with anxiety and 1.9 million with depression. Sometimes, these conditions are intertwined. For example, as many as 3 in 4 children aged 3-17 years with depression also have anxiety.
Mental health is influenced by many factors, one of the most common is bullying, which is also linked to violence and suicide. In fact, bullies, victims of bullying, and bully-victims (youth who have been on both sides of bullying) are more likely to harm themselves, according to research.
The most obvious kind of bullying is physical, but it can come in many forms and be as subtle as staring, mocking, or excluding someone. All forms of bullying can negatively affect the school environment, but when a positive school climate and culture of inclusion is created schoolwide, it’s hard for bullying or violence to exist.
How to build a strong and supportive school environment
An inclusive, nurturing school community is achieved when everyone in a school feels safe, valued, engaged, and respected. Building a stronger school isn’t easy, but it is doable. All it takes is time, patience, and commitment from everyone. These four approaches are especially useful.
1. Cultivate respectful, supportive relationships
Building a culture of caring about and looking out for one another comes naturally when we have supportive relationships. They start when we connect with each other on a real, human, personal level, as teacher Dr. Rita Pierson pointed out in her TED Talk, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”
The interactions between every member of the school community — from students and teachers, parents to principals, the secretary to the custodians — can help to build it up or break it down. Supportive relationships also help students feel comfortable bringing their personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences into the classroom.
2. Build, share, and live your mission
Besides academics, it’s essential for students to develop qualities essential to good character and citizenship, such as fairness, concern for others, and personal responsibility. These qualities can be woven into a school’s mission, but it’s important that it aligns with the shared values of all school community members. When students are empowered to own their school’s mission, it injects a sense of pride and agency to support safe and inclusive environments for everyone.
Show students they have the power to create a positive classroom and school climate by including them in the promotion of prosocial behaviors and the prevention of anti-social behaviors. Classcraft provides a way for teachers to encourage the actions they want to see and discourage those they don’t while giving students a way to work together and help each other out.
Classcraft has had a positive impact on reducing bullying for 99 percent of teachers surveyed. By having students work together as teams, students learn to look out for each other, monitor their own behavior, and care about their peers.
In one case, a teacher and parent told Classcraft co-founder Shawn Young that the program had transformed classroom culture completely, stopping bullying within two weeks and saving one student who was on the verge of suicide.
3. Create opportunities to be involved and contribute
Encourage autonomy and leadership by creating an open environment where communication and discussion are welcome. Including students in decisions, policy, or just establishing the class activities is intrinsically satisfying and makes everyone feel included and heard. It also teaches students valuable life skills for their future.
4. Recognize the awesome in your students
Shift the focus away from punishment and onto recognizing and encouraging positive behaviors and successes. Using Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) practices makes school more positive for students by focusing on what they are doing right.
Take it a step further by celebrating moments where students display helpfulness, inclusiveness, and responsibility.
Speaking up can make a difference
There is no simple solution to the devastating results of school violence and self-harm. It takes an ongoing effort by school and students to look for warning signs and take action to prevent violence, suicides, and threats.
Through greater awareness and a commitment to speaking up, students play a vital role in creating safe, secure, and peaceful schools.
Photo credit: Dragana_Gordic / freepik