School Safety Report Finds Dire Need For Mental Health Services
LAUREN GILGER: Even before COVID-19 struck, educators were grappling with another crisis of sorts. School safety has sparked debates about how to best protect students and staff from threats ranging from mental health to physical violence like school shooters. A school safety task force was assembled, and now they have released their recommendations as well as a collection of ideas from students. But these recommendations have inevitably been informed not only by the pandemic, which has driven many students home and out of reach, but also police violence that rocked the country again this year. For more on what the task force found and how schools may now have to adapt their strategies in this new era, I spoke with Julie Kent-Partridge, a social worker with the Washington Elementary School District.
JULIE KENT-PARTRIDGE: The major thing that we worked on, the goals of the task force, was to create a document that all districts could access that would have resources to assist as it pertains to emotional safety for students. One of the biggest things that we discovered was that not all schools had access to certain things — social workers, resource officers, things like that. So as a team, we came together, and we have some legislative recommendations that we'll be offering or requesting in the 2021 legislation. And then some of the other things that came out of that was the request for providing funds for mental health programs and other positions like mental health counselors and social workers. And then we want school leaders and educators to come from and reflect the school community. We want to implement restorative justice programs and centers in schools, implement culturally-sensitive and anti-racist curriculum, and consider alternatives to negative reinforcement systems like detention and suspension.
GILGER: I wanted to ask you about the students' role in this. Students participated in the process as well and presented their own recommendations, right? And they suggested a student body with some decision-making power here. What do you think they're asking for here? Like, do you think they feel out of control or out of the loop when it comes to their own safety and the policies that the schools put forth?
KENT-PARTRIDGE: Absolutely. They want their voices to be heard. And a lot of times, and in some cases, as they've described, they don't feel validated. And being trauma informed and schools having trauma-informed staff and being able to meet a student where they're at is super important, especially right now in COVID times. So these students coming up was just an eye opener on several different levels. And they want to have committees, they want to have meetings, they want to have things where they can come together and feel purposeful and sense of community within public education. They're right. This is exactly what we need. And I think that this is a great starting point for our state and for our school districts.
GILGER: Yeah. How did, do you think, the pandemic reshape the discussion here and some of the recommendations that came out of it?
KENT-PARTRIDGE: Well, it's interesting because, while COVID has happened, it's very unfortunate. But I think it's a real opportunity for our state because we did have some needs that need to be met for our kids as it pertains to emotional safety. So right now, school districts are trying their best. Actually, our district is doing a really great job doing additional check-ins with students, creating social-emotional lessons for the kids and creating virtual recess opportunities for the kids so they have an additional opportunity to have another outlet to talk about how they feel and what they need. You know, we just need to give students more opportunities to get their voices and concerns heard overall, but even more so now. But we need to have all schools doing it and make sure that they have practices in place. And opportunities in place for these kids to be able to still feel connection, purposeful and still be part of a school-connected community.
GILGER: Yeah, yeah. There have been concerns, I know, during the pandemic about child abuse and neglect not being detected because students are at home. They're not around those mandatory reporters. How do you sort of ensure the safety of students when they're not even on campus?
KENT-PARTRIDGE: Well, again, it's about creating opportunity. And hopefully we have the teachers engage with the — it's not even hopefully; I know that the teachers are very engaged right now. Just having that visual with the students. We in our district were really promoting the social, emotional check-ins with them in the morning and asking them how they're feeling. Do they want to talk? Do they want to have another session with the social worker, another staff member to kind of talk about those things. But yeah, I'm sure that abuse cases are at an all time high now, and we don't even know about that. But we are really, really trying to create those opportunities with our staff, our teachers, social workers, even our principal here is really great about making those connections. So we're really giving a lot more of those opportunities for these kids right now.
GILGER: I want to ask you more about the kind of debate that's gone on at the Capitol, largely along party lines, about the efficacy of school counselors and social workers like yourself versus school resource officers and where the funding should go. Students, especially students of color, have led the calls against officers on campus because of the sort of violence and discrimination we have seen across the country this summer and for years now. Did the task force aim to tackle this issue?
KENT-PARTRIDGE: There was some discussion about resource officers and school counselors and social workers and what that would look like. And, you know, they were looking for some recommendations of one position versus another position. And in fact, we did have some students come in and speak to us about how, how they felt with the presence of a police officer. And honestly, I think it really just comes down to the needs of the school and what the funding is as far as what type of position they're going to have on campus.
GILGER: Final question for you then, Julie. What do you think the state then more broadly, not just districts, not just individual schools, should do differently to better protect schools from physical, mental and health-related threats like COVID-19 as we go forward here? Like, what do you, what do you wish the state were doing differently? What recommendations in this apply to the state general?
KENT-PARTRIDGE: Well, so ultimately, we need to have more, more social workers on campus or social-emotional supports on campus. And that's really what we have to do. You know, as a whole. Teachers can't do everything. They cannot do everything. That would be great if they could do this type of work, but we need social workers, counselors and additional support staff that are actually trauma-informed trained. We need to be seeing perspectives through different lenses, through the students' eyes, and we need to be promoting self-care opportunities and things like that with our staff because unregulated adults cannot teach unregulated students. So we really do need to do some more trainings and stuff within our schools and we need to get them to understand how kids are thinking. And by having these students and having these opportunities for these students to have their voices heard on campus by clubs or committees or just on these types of March for Our Lives, I think that's going to be also very beneficial for our districts.
GILGER: All right. That is Julie Kent-Partridge, a social worker with the Washington Elementary School District, joining us this morning. Julie, thank you so much for coming on The Show to talk about this.
KENT-PARTRIDGE: All right. Thank you. Appreciate it.