Anxiety and stress levels are up for many students, parents, staff and teachers as they return to campuses and classrooms for the 2022-23 school year.
Some students and teachers are still wrestling with the return to schools after the remote learning and shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic.
Others are anxious over mass school shootings and their seemingly too regular occurrence across the country.
The horrific elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in late May, with its bungled police response and slaughter of 19 elementary school kids and two teachers, has added to the stress.
Students and parents want to feel more empowered and in control over potential emergency situations. That is part of a much larger mental and behavioral component to addressing school violence, according to counselors and school safety experts across the country.
“There’s a lot of anxiety – a lot of them feel pretty helpless,” said Willow Goldfarb, a licensed mental health counselor and lead clinician for Thriveworks in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, of students she’s counseled after Uvalde.
She’s worked with those impacted by the 2018 mass shooting, on Valentine’s Day, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Nikolas Cruz, then 19, opened fire there, killing 17 and injuring 17 more.
The wounds of the Parkland massacre and examinations of Cruz’s troubled childhood and mental and behavioral health problems have been reopened this summer with sentencing testimony being heard in a Florida courtroom. Those testifying have included still-grieving parents and relatives.
Goldfarb is hearing from students, parents and teachers in the wake of the Uvalde shooting, on their worries about police responses after it took officers there an hour to confront shooter Salvador Ramos.
Goldfarb said some students are pressing for more of their own options for survival, escape and connections to the outside world.
Some students have questioned why they can’t be armed if teachers and staff have that option in more gun-friendly states and regions.
“It’s the narrative of the good guy shooter shooting the bad guy shooters,” Goldfarb said.
She also said some students don’t like restrictive cellphone policies imposed by some schools. She’s heard from kids who became used to constant communication with their parents during the pandemic, as well as those who want to be able to call 911 or share information during an emergency, that such rules are a source of anxiety.
Goldfarb said students have also shared that they often feel talked down to when it comes to school security and safety. They say districts would be better served if school officials were as collaborative, inclusive and transparent as possible.
“I feel a lot of times kids get talked over. Just tell them what’s going to happen,” Goldfarb said.
She said she tries to empower students who are feeling trepidation about school safety to follow their instincts in school security situations.
“I talk to them about trusting their gut,” Goldfarb said.
Concerned parents also want to feel more empowered and are pushing to be more involved with school security and safety decisions in light of the recent shootings, said Sharon Hoover, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine and co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health.
“How are you going to keep my kid safe?” is a common refrain Hoover hears from worried parents headed into the new school year.
“Families are certainly wanting to be at the table,” Hoover said.
The need to feel empowered and included is just the tip of the mental and behavioral health iceberg when it comes to schools, given the continued challenges of bullying and the regularity of contemporary mass shootings.
Addressing bullying and antisocial behavior are essential to addressing the mental health components of school violence, according to Brenda High.
High co-founded Bully Police USA after her 13-year-old son died by suicide after being bullied at a school in Washington State. The Idaho group advocates for tougher anti-bully laws across U.S. states.
High said there are still schoolyards and social cultures that allow bullying and fail to help kids in distress.
“You will still find many places where it’s still ‘boys will be boys’, ‘girls will be girls’,” said High.
Her group helps schools implement more student-focused behavior programs, such as peer groups who can help address bullying and mistreatment of classmates.
She said mental health counselors in schools also need to be paid more. School counselors earn a median annual salary of $46,778, with starting pay of $33,000 per year for some, according to San Francisco-based staffing firm Zippia Inc.
Many of the school shooters suffered from mental and behavioral health problems and faced bullying – or felt they were bullied and mistreated, according to reports on those incidents.
Their feelings of ostracization and disassociation can dangerously combine with access to weapons and inadequate responses to mental health challenges by parents, schools and law enforcement.
“It comes back to that sense of connectedness and relationships,” said Amy Klinger, an education professor with Ashland University in Ohio and co-founder of the nonprofit Educators School Safety Network.
Klinger said not all of the mass shooters were bullied – but all of them believe they were mistreated and felt disconnected from their schools and classmates.
Klinger said school can be “a living hell” for some kids who face endless bullying and mistreatment from classmates. Some also live in abusive, traumatic and toxic situations at home.
Some of those same homes might not be supportive of behavioral health counseling, while others offer access to guns and ammunition.
Students and their caregivers can also worry about stigmatizations at school and within families and communities that might come with mental counseling.
Goldfarb and other mental health professionals said kids will often follow suit if one or more parents are into guns – or, conversely, are skeptical of behavioral and mental health counseling.
“The kid is picking up on that message and running with it,” she said.
Federal gun measures passed earlier this summer after Uvalde allocated $750 million over five years to help states with crisis intervention programs such as ‘red-flag’ laws that can block purchases and confiscate guns for mental health reasons.
Those efforts run into constitutional protections for gun ownership via the Second Amendment, as well as civil liberties concerns about how far police and commitment powers should potentially be expanded.
The federal bill also offers another $510 million in various mental and behavioral health grants for states, localities and school districts.
Social division and politically fueled disagreement over how to address mass shootings also creates disparate reactions to proposed school safety solutions.
Principals Dave Hardesty of Linford Elementary and Loren Engel of Beitel expressed confidence that the district is doing effective work in keeping local schools safe.
Nationwide, Republicans opposed to new federal gun controls have called for more police officers, security guards and security layers on campuses.
That may give confidence to some – but not others.
“I do find students of color or marginalized communities feel a lot more anxious when there are more police officers around,” Goldfarb said.
Some school districts took fresh looks, with some scaling back cops and security guards on campus after the 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis officer.
But the pendulum is swinging back toward increased security and police footprints on campuses after Uvalde and other recent shootings.
David Moore, police chief of Janesville, Wisconsin, near the Illinois border, said law enforcement agencies need to build trust within communities and at schools in order to get help with early identification and interventions.
“You need to have that trust in the community so they will reach out,” said Moore, who has resources officers at local schools in southern Wisconsin.
Law enforcement officers, like teachers and school staff, have been struggling with how to recognize and deal with behavioral health problems, as well as bullying and harassment.
Teachers, many of whom already had high anxiety over COVID-19 and are stressed by labor shortages, are also seeing more training related to shootings including crisis interventions and treating severe gunshot wounds.
Hoover said districts need to be sensitive to what they are adding to teachers’ duties. “We have to be really careful about adding one more thing to their plate,” she said.
There are also continuing problems with societal approaches to mental health – on and off campus.
A person with untreated mental illness is 16 times more likely to be killed by police, according to a study by the Treatment Advocacy Center. And mentally ill persons make up more than 1 in 4 fatal police shootings, according to the Virginia-based group.
A 2020 study Harvard University found Black people are 3.23 times more likely than whites to be killed by police.
The rush to increase security infrastructure, including limiting access points, and installing more cameras and layers of fences and barriers, can ease concerns, but create anxiety for others.
“You can set it up like a prison, but then who wants to send their kids,” said Klinger, who is concerned that knee-jerk reactions to the latest shootings give the appearance of action, but can fail to address root challenges, such as helping kids in distress, and teachers and staff following security protocols and addressing bullying situations.
“When you have an active shooter incident, the immediate response is to do more active shooter drills,” Klinger said.
Hoover said anxiety over shootings and the return to school are combining with some of the stresses, conflict and social isolations of the pandemic.
“We do better when we feel stable and secure,” said Hoover, who is also director of the Maryland-based National Center for Safe Supportive Schools. “We have had nothing that feels stable or secure for two-and-a-half years now.”