It's time to see mental health as a school concern

April 23, 1999|By Susan G. Keys

THE DEVASTATING suburban high school shooting in Colorado the other day shows once again that the potential for violence in today's schools is all too real. Though few such incidents are dramatic enough to dominate the headlines, we know for a fact that schools cope daily with an increasingly violent and aggressive student population.

In the federal government's recently released national study on school violence, one in 10 principals who participated in the study reported that at least one serious violent crime had occurred in his or her school the previous year.

Violent and aggressive behavior is a very complex problem with no single nor simple solution. Faced with the challenge of preserving school safety, schools have responded in a variety of ways, including establishing policies that mandate strict punishments for infractions of school rules, controlling access to school grounds, requiring visitors to sign in, using metal detectors at school entrances, hiring security guards and conducting drug sweeps.

In addition to these more reactive measures, schools have also initiated programs to develop skills for conflict resolution and problem solving, and programs to help students resolve conflicts peacefully such as peer mediation and student court. These steps are positive but more can be done. Here are several other suggestions for curbing school violence:

Make mental health a priority in school funding. While educating students is the schools' main function, monitoring students' mental health is key to academic achievement. Students who are potentially violent have complex problems that may interfere with their ability to learn.

If our society is committed to reducing school violence, it's perplexing to read about school funding initiatives aimed at decreasing teacher/student ratios, with no mention of decreasing school counselor/student ratios.

School counselors in many systems are the only mental health professionals in a school on a daily basis, yet many of them must cope with ratios of 600 students to one counselor or greater, particularly at the elementary level.

School counselors can play a critical role in coordinating school-family-community prevention initiatives, educating the school, families and broader community about the problem of violence, and providing initial assessment and counseling of students at risk for violent and aggressive behavior.

Schools must provide affordable and accessible mental health services of sufficient duration to adequately help students with serious problems. Increasingly, community mental health service systems are being replaced by private service providers. So private insurers are picking up the tab. Under managed care, the insurers increasingly are limiting the number of psychological counseling sessions they will pay for.

Young people with a propensity for violence have complex problems not easily solved in a few counseling sessions. If these young people and their families are to be adequately helped, it is important for client need to determine the level and extent of counseling, not insurance companies' policies.

Redefine school violence not as a school problem but as a school-family-community problem. No single institution working alone can successfully address the issue of violent and aggressive youth. Only when the three sectors work together can comprehensive solutions begin to be identified.

Susan G. Keys, Ph.D., is a professor and chairman of the Department of Counseling and Human Services at Johns Hopkins University. She is co-author of "Violent and Aggressive Youth: Intervention and Prevention Strategies for Changing Times," which is to be published in June by Corwin Press.

Pub Date: 4/23/99

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