By JP Guilbault, CEO, Navigate360

America’s young people are facing unprecedented challenges, from isolation and depression resulting from the pandemic to stressors as they relate to social unrest, exposure to unhealthy content on social media, and ever-present cyberbullying. We know these issues can lead students onto a path of acting out, and at their worst, committing harm to self or others. We want to do everything we can to help schools see the signs and cries for help and to prevent these behaviors from culminating into a tragedy like the one that took place in Oxford, Michigan.

When tragic events like these do happen, I am always asking myself tough questions. Were there signs? Were there dots that could have been connected? Would additional training and solutions have helped prevent this tragic outcome?

How should we endeavor to answer these questions, and most importantly, how can we put the answers we obtain into action to prevent any other tragedies from taking place?

The U.S. Surgeon General recently released a report on the current state of mental health in this nation’s youth, and the situation is dire: Depression and anxiety have doubled among young people during the pandemic. Emergency room visits for suicide attempts have increased throughout the past year for children. In 2019, one in three high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, an overall increase of 40% from 2009.

Statistics like these, along with the alarming rise in school and community gun violence, paint a sobering picture of many students’ mental health. Yes, the situation is dire, and we as safety professionals, educators, and school administrators have the responsibility to help.

Steps to Take: A Call to Action
There are things we can do. The Surgeon General’s report outlines steps school districts can take to better address concerning behaviors and prevent tragedies from occurring on their campuses. Among these is the need to create positive, safe, affirming school environments by developing and enforcing anti-bullying policies and training students and staff on how to talk about mental health.

Schools should also consider expanding social-emotional learning (SEL) programs and other evidence-based approaches that promote healthy development in students, the report states. When it comes to SEL, the proof is in the outcomes. According to a variety of research, SEL can:

–Improve academic performance and classroom behavior
–Help students better manage anxiety, depression and stress levels
–Encourage students to have positive attitudes about themselves and the people around them
–Impact students over the long-term, helping them in college and beyond

The Surgeon General’s report also states that learning how to recognize signs of change in mental and physical health among students, including behavior changes, is critical. Comprehensive behavioral threat assessment (BTA) programs, coupled with threat assessment training for multidisciplinary BTA team members, can help schools identify and analyze concerning behaviors before they escalate to tragic outcomes in our schools.

We must be more vigilant in preventing violence, but it cannot and should not be at the expense of preparation. Both are necessary. Any violence, especially a shooting where lives are lost, is tragic and deeply heartbreaking. As I watched video from the Oxford shooting, observed photos and listened to students that were in the middle of this horrific event, I thought, “It could have been much worse if school leaders had not prepared and trained for this day.” Although I am paraphrasing the Oakland County Sheriff, I am certain lives were saved and many more would have been otherwise lost if proactive, multi-option active shooter response training had not been implemented at Oxford High School prior to that day. This training empowers people to survive violence, and it is another tool to keep us proactive in the fight against harm in our schools.

A Sense of Urgency

There is no doubt that the time to ensure the safety of our students is now. We must work harder to address the safety and mental health concerns that are evident in this nation’s schools.

We cannot afford to wait. We need to create a sense of urgency and a purposeful, united front. In short, preventing the next tragic outcome requires

  • removing silos and eliminating gaps by using every tool and technique we have to identify threats, share information, assess and intervene;
  • proactively addressing hate and detrimental behavior by providing curriculum and education to enhance school culture and the character on display in our schools and communities; and
  • eliminating stigmas and knowledge gaps by offering education to staff and students on how to recognize the signs of students in need.

We can find answers to the questions that arise after a tragedy takes place on school grounds. We must find answers if we are to help prevent loss of life in the future.

I join you as we move from awareness into action in our fight against the student mental health crisis in this country. I join you in the effort to educate students, staff and communities at large about maintaining a true culture of safety inside and outside of school. We owe it to our students to help them grow up both mentally and physically healthy. Their lives – and everyone’s future – depend on it.

If there is anything Navigate360 can do for your school or community, do not hesitate to reach out. We are here to support you however we can.