School safety starts with students’ mental health, say local educators
If you gathered a roundtable of school administrators and teachers to discuss school safety, you might expect the discussions to center around security technologies and enhanced safety protocols.
While those measures are vitally important and being addressed in detail by central Illinois school districts, what’s first and foremost on the minds of local educators when it comes to improving school safety is the mental health of their students.
According to data compiled from federal surveys and released in 2022 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Center for Education Statistics, there were significant rises in cyberbullying, student behavioral issues and school violence from 2010 to 2020. But while more schools are evaluating student mental health, fewer can provide assistance due to a lack of adequate funding and availability of mental health providers.
Dr. Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat, superintendent of Peoria Public Schools, said that 20 years ago, the biggest safety issue a school had was an occasional hallway fistfight. Now schools are battling much more serious issues.
“While the pandemic certainly exacerbated the mental health crisis, we’ve also seen an increase in ACEs, or adverse childhood experiences,” she explained. “These experiences, such as divorce, bullying, anxiety, social media, neglect, incarceration or poverty-related circumstances, can have a profound impact on student mental health and cause behavioral issues in school.”
Dunlap Community Unit School District 323 Superintendent Dr. Scott Dearman agrees that student mental health is at a critical level. “Some of the issues students are facing can be traced back to the pandemic, I’m sure, but a lot of it is the evolution of society in general, including some of the more negative effects of social media,” he said.
As a member of the Illinois Association of School Administrators, Dearman has had conversations with administrators across the state who are seeing an uptick in student mental health issues. “The result is we’re seeing behavioral-related incidents happen more frequently and much more intensely than they did in the past.”
Handle with care
Tackling these issues is something schools do carefully, and with partners. Peoria Public Schools works with area non-profit agencies that provide counseling and outreach, child welfare services and alternative settings for at-risk students.
The district also works with local law enforcement on the “Handle With Care” initiative, a national program that supports trauma-informed practices for children and families. Peoria Public Schools was the first district to pilot the program through Lifting Up, a local social innovation company that helped automate the national model.
“When law enforcement officers are at the scene of crime, violence, and/or abuse and identify children … who have been exposed to trauma, they can send a confidential notice to the child’s school,” explained Demario Boone, director of school safety for Peoria Public Schools. “No information is shared except for the child’s name and the words, ‘Handle With Care.’ So, if the child acts out or exhibits some concerning behavior, the teacher has a heads-up and can take constructive rather than punitive action.”
Each Peoria school has designated Handle With Care “champions,” who can be principals, teachers, counselors or other staff members trained on how to approach and communicate with traumatized students. These individuals try to develop a rapport with students, said Boone, and “know when they receive an alert, they need to follow up with the student, whether that’s in school or at home, to make sure that student is OK, offer support and let the student know there’s a trusted adult looking out for them.”
Brett Elliott, entering his fourth year as superintendent of Stark County District 100, said a critical component of mental health is “making sure every student feels welcome and heard … It’s communicating to the point of over communicating, and celebrating diversity, inclusion and tolerance. We’ve worked really hard on that, and we’ve seen a big culture shift districtwide.”
Something Elliott brought with him from his days as principal of Peoria’s Richwoods High School is a philosophy called PHEARCE (Process, Humility, Energy, Adversity, Relationships, Culture, Excellence), which encourages students and staff to live a culture of shared leadership, trust and unity. The result is that “students know that they matter and they have a role in … our school community,” he said.
His current district has implemented Pride Time, a 25-minute period during the school day for grades six through 12. “It’s non-academic time where students … can participate in team-building activities, character education and club meetings,” he said. “This gives both students and teachers time … to get to know each other and connect on a different level.”
John Wetterauer, principal at Riverview Grade School in the East Peoria/Spring Bay area, said it’s imperative to have support systems in place. “Being a small, rural school, we’ve seen the positive effects of having a full-time social worker on staff and several outside agencies that offer guidance and support,” he said. “But where we see the greatest influence is through the positive, trusting and nurturing relationship between teacher and students.”
Kherat agrees. “Most people our age never knew who their school superintendent was,” she said. “I try to be present. I regularly attend basketball and football games. Kids know me by name, come up and give me a hug. My staff is the same way. We need to make our presence known so both students and parents get to know us and feel comfortable communicating with us.”
See something, say something
Back in the day, you didn’t dare tattle on another student for fear of being labeled a “narc.” Now a life — or lives — could be at stake.
Peoria Public Schools provides an anonymous tip line that can be accessed by text, website or app. Unlike other tip lines that just take messages, this platform enables an individual to communicate back and forth with a member of the school safety team.
“This is my 18th year in the district, and I’ve not seen the tip line used as much as it is now,” said Boone. “And it’s not only for students. Parents, staff members, even neighbors can use it.”
In his experience, there has always been someone who sensed something wasn’t quite right prior to a safety issue, said Dunlap’s Dearman. “We want our students to know if they see something, they need to say something, and that it will be taken seriously and addressed. That’s why it’s so important to have a method of communication, even if it’s an anonymous one, so students can report any suspicious or potentially dangerous activity.”
Covering all the bases
By law, schools are required to have threat assessment teams, usually comprised of school officials and resource officers. These teams meet periodically or, if there’s an incident, immediately, to determine the existing threat level. Responses can include conflict resolution, law enforcement intervention, a mental health services referral or a formalized safety plan. Schools also are required to conduct lockdown drills that address an active threat within or outside a school building.
Gone are the days when you could walk right into a school on any given day. “All exterior doors in all District 150 schools are locked — you have to be buzzed in,” said Boone. Cameras have been updated and positioned inside and outside all schools, and a program called IntelliSee flags suspicious activity and automatically sends a text to security officials so they can assess if it’s a threat.
“All our schools now have double-layer entrances,” said Elliott. “We also have the Raptor visitor security system that screens the driver’s license of anyone who enters the building and runs it through various databases, which can identify custody orders, sex offenders or those with banned visitor statuses.”
In Dunlap schools, all exterior doors have sensors with timers. If a door is open during the day that shouldn’t be, an immediate notification is sent via email, text and phone to the appropriate staff members.
Peoria schools also utilize a computer program called Gaggle. “If a student checks out a laptop for home or uses a district computer or any server we have, and types in certain keywords like guns or suicide, we’ll receive a notification,” said Boone. “A lot of times they’re benign issues — someone’s writing an English paper or something. But sometimes they’re not … We’ve made some important interventions as a result of that software.”
“We know that there’s a lot going on out in our world today, and there are limited resources,” said Kherat. “As a school district, we end up doing a lot — because we have to.”
“This is our school district. These are our kids. This is our community,” said Elliott. “And when we all are in it together, we can celebrate our successes. But our challenges are ours, as well. It takes everyone to create a positive, healthy culture and a safe environment.”