Each time the horror of a school shooting in America provokes a national discussion relative to guns, violence and safety in schools, lawmakers in Washington contemplate ideas but to date have failed to reach consensus on how to respond. While a national solution remains elusive, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents (M.A.S.S.) believes that states should not wait to consider options, but act decisively, and implement meaningful reforms intended to keep students and school personnel safe in classrooms.
Now is the time for Massachusetts to examine and adopt universal basic principles of emergency planning and outline clearly the basic functions of a coordinated response. No single proposal can sufficiently address all of the many real concerns expressed by the vast constituencies across this country. However, while the lawmakers in Washington grapple with matters of Constitutional consequence, M.A.S.S. has identified several areas of concern that require our immediate attention. Such efforts must comprise a Comprehensive Safe Schools Initiative (CSSI) and should range from expanding behavioral health interventions to training school personnel, and ensuring that students have a voice to assist administrators improve the safety of all.
Collectively, superintendents agree that the foremost issue that requires our immediate intervention is developing and implementing strategies that proactively address the mental health of students across all age groups and cohorts. No effort to address the issue of ‘school safety’ is complete without this important first step. School authorities are experiencing an increasing number and complexity of children demonstrating mental illness and stressful lives. Schools have become the last resort for many social/emotional conditions that students experience. The safety net needs to expand and
schools need additional resources and expert mental health options to treat children as well as formalized partnerships with regional mental health providers.
At the present time, there are no universal programs across the Commonwealth that formalize collaboration among a wide range of stakeholders invested in integrated approaches to reduce barriers to student learning. Ranging from sharing best practices and information among educators and both physical and mental healthcare providers, to cooperative agreements that improve collaboration among schools, community providers, and families; there are no shortage of ways to
streamline processes and expand the delivery of services to students and families.
The 4 basic principles outlined in a January 21, 2015 article appearing in Education-Week and reworked a bit below to better reflect a more Massachusetts-centric approach establish the baseline for our recommendations. Titled Four Ways to Improve Student Mental-Health Support and written Stephen E.
Brock & H. Thomas Brant, the article states emphatically, “It shouldn’t take a horrific tragedy for us to take seriously the imperative to support children’s mental health. Nevertheless, (it) serves as a painful reminder that we have much to do, and it provides an opportunity to recommit to actually doing it.” Superintendents
of schools in Massachusetts agree, and unanimously recommend the following:
Massachusetts must formalize a continuum of school and community mental-health supports
As referenced above, an increasing number of schools in Massachusetts are providing mental-health services through a multi-tiered system of supports, or MTSS. At one end of this continuum is the universal promotion of mental health and wellness (such as programs that promote social-emotional learning and universal screening for mental-health problems). Providing universal wellness promotion serves to mitigate more intensive problems while at the same time improving overall achievement. At the other end is coordinated, individualized, and intensive school- and community-based mental-health treatment designed for those students who develop mental disorders. Expanded professional development and increasing the numbers of school-employed mental-health professionals who have the expertise to provide a range of mental-health services (assessment, counseling, and consultation, for example) to meet the needs of most students is a critically important piece of the puzzle on Massachusetts and across the Country. However, for students with severe mental illness, it is vitally important to have seamless access to community-based treatment resources that are geographically convenient and readily accessible.
Massachusetts must broaden access to school mental-health supports beyond special education
Special education services are essential for students who have learning and emotional disabilities that prevent them from accessing the general education curriculum. But many students who need mental-
health supports do not meet the criteria for having a “disability.”
Relying solely on special education as a mechanism to provide mental-health services limits our reach and effectiveness. It puts unnecessary strain on the SPED Circuit Breaker mechanism in Massachusetts. Moreover, it puts parents in the position of believing that the only way to get their child help is to argue for a special education placement, even if it isn’t genuinely appropriate. This isn’t good for anyone. As such, an important piece of this effort must include revisiting the definition of ‘medically necessary’ versus ‘educationally necessary’ services, and further, requires mandating health insurers have a responsibility to cover medically necessary care delivered in an educational setting. In contrast, when schools provide mental-health supports within an MTSS, all students have access to services, while special education is focused on those students with disabilities requiring intensive and specially designed instruction.
Massachusetts must improve school-community collaboration to provide integrated and coordinated mental-health care
Disconnects between school- and community-based mental-health providers create some of the biggest problems in mental-health care. Lack of effective communication leads to confusion, contention, fractured decision making and implementation, and, as the Connecticut report notes, missed opportunities. These disconnects are caused in equal parts by structural differences (e.g., separate privacy laws regarding students and health), use of different terminology (e.g., “emotional disturbance” has a very different meaning in special education versus clinical settings), and ignorance about (and perhaps a dismissal of) the other’s systems and processes.
The reality is that, to improve our system of mental-health services, neither sector can afford to go it alone. Both are necessary elements of the continuum of mental-health care and must work in concert. Steps toward building effective partnerships include establishing a leadership team composed of school and community mental-health professionals, conducting an assessment of needs and existing resources, clarifying roles and responsibilities, providing professional development, and making time for regular problem-solving and evaluation. Effective partnerships empower school and community providers to make more informed, efficacious decisions and best use of resources, and to make support over time more consistent and cohesive.
Massachusetts must empower families to manage the myriad decisions and resources they need to meet their child’s mental-health needs
Parents should be the ultimate arbiters of their child’s care and well-being. And they are often the primary, if not the only, bridge between school and community services. Amid what can be a painful, surprising, or even frightening emerging reality for their child, they also face the daunting task of making difficult and sometimes confusing decisions. In some instances, this results in intensive advocacy on their part. In other cases, it results in inaction out of indecision, lack of understanding, or lack of resources. In still other cases, parents find themselves caught between conflicting recommendations or perspectives of different professionals, leaving them feeling overwhelmed and isolated.
Respecting the parent’s role while also conveying critical information about needed services is a delicate but critical responsibility for school and community professionals. This responsibility includes reducing stigma and facilitating help-seeking. It requires providing information in clear and culturally appropriate terms. It also requires tenacity, compassion, and, perhaps most importantly, establishing a trusting relationship anchored by recognition that all parties want to do what is best for the child. In this regard, improved school-community collaboration that views parents as partners facilitates their ability to make good decisions and get the help their children need.
There is little doubt that mental health interventions work. Giving kids early and consistent opportunities to develop tools to help them appropriately respond a crisis will avoid inappropriate outbursts later in their lives. Make no mistake about it, this effort is significant and will require an increase in the number of well trained school personnel, expanded access to community-based mental health providers in Massachusetts as well as substantial increases in financial resources. This investment in our children and their social and emotional health is imperative. School districts throughout Massachusetts have a captive audience of young people in classrooms every day. Incorporating mental health interventions into the typical part of a school day normalizes an otherwise stigmatized health care option. The opportunity to capitalize on the existing school infrastructure and bolster it with collaborative community based systems and support makes sense. Mental health is just as important as physical health. Our children deserve nothing less than the opportunity to develop and improve the quality of both.