The rise of school shootings and school shooting threats within the last five years in the United States has left school officials and law enforcement in a state of perplexity in attempting to address this issue. Recent findings show that 93% of school shootings are premeditated, meaning that perpetrators come up with a comprehensive plan for executing their shooting, according to Allison Paolini in her study, “School shootings and Student Mental Health.” In 2021, the Center for Homeland Security reported there were 240 incidents of non-active and active shooters in K-12 schools in the United States – this resulted in 18 individuals killed from school shootings in K-12 schools. Right here in Minnesota, a school shooting occurred on the grounds of District 287 in Richfield. Prior, a federally funded grant had been given to them to improve the mental health system within their school system, yet this deadly event still took place.
Intervention is needed at the individual and institutional level to reduce incidents like these from occurring. Successful intervention involves tailoring programs to the needs and development of adolescents. One holistic approach to solving problems within schools is through the use of restorative practices.
Restorative practice is a process in which an individual acknowledges wrongdoing, takes needed steps to repair harm, and is then reintegrated into the appropriate environment. Such practices typically occur after the shooting or threat that consist of: victim-impact panels, retribution, and rehabilitation. These practices and more are effective for reducing recidivism in juvenile school shooters. Restorative justice allows the ability for the perpetrator and victim(s), as well as the school community, to address the harm that took place and to work towards taking responsibility and finding closure.
Mental illnesses go hand-in-hand with a greater risk of suicide, and the majority of those with mental illnesses are actually non-violent. Therefore, preventative mental health care is a step in the right direction, with policy recommendations promoting and addressing mental health and suicide awareness in schools. By acknowledging mental health and suicide awareness, students could attend educational mental health-oriented assemblies. This also means that school districts are provided more in-depth mental health services.
James Densley, a criminal justice professor at Metro State University and co-founder of The Violence Project, spoke on how Minnesota has some of the worst student-to-counselor ratios. To address this issue, he explained that we need to provide more opportunities for students to feel connected in schools, other than just having a counselor. This leads to a need for a student to feel loved, seen, and heard in their school setting. If each student had a meaningful connection to an adult in their school, we would see a decrease in violence in schools. “Smaller class sizes are a step towards violence prevention,” Densley stated. By using James Densley’s philosophy as policy recommendation, the school districts should create smaller class sizes and create weekly meetings including all staff members to promote more changes and ideas to help improve mental health, along with a check in on how their students are doing.
We talked to another professional in the field, Robin Burge-Ross, who is a clinical social worker in Minnesota that has experience with at-risk youth, corrections, and public education. Most of her time is spent in alternative learning centers (ALC). She explained that in these settings, the class sizes are much smaller. This allows students to cope with their anxiety, and teachers can build more meaningful relationships with their students. Most ALC settings “prioritize mental health and basic needs,” Burge-Ross states, and these resources are what students need. Many of the students she has worked with have turned to drugs as a means to self-medicate. Her strength-based approach with students and families is what students need to be able to learn more healthy coping mechanism strategies and overall identify their feelings. This includes listening to what their bodies are telling them, and providing tools to students to cope with big emotions that are being felt.
A great recommendation for not only Minnesota but nationally would be to require school districts to include behavioral health needs as a reason for an excused absence, alongside physical health problems. This approach and the many resources that alternative settings provide will allow youth to be successful in life and school.
The authors of this column are students at Hamline University.
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