School districts might devise solutions to understand students better. Here’s one suggestion. Bring back a more personalized homeroom with smaller student groups (10 to 15 students) along with an adult mentor for at least 20 minutes each day.
Students need smaller groups to get to know each other and feel supported to understand there’s no shame in depression or feeling bad, and it would help for them to know they’re not alone.
Because schools are experiencing a shortage of teachers and staff, mentors for these smaller groups could include teachers, paraprofessionals, staff, PTA parents, and interested community members who participate in formal preparation in how to understand middle and high school students and facilitate positive group interactions. Each mentor would undergo background checks.
Most remember homeroom for taking roll and listening to announcements replaced now with general classes. But an anchor class where small numbers of students check in with each other and a mentor prepared to understand students and their concerns is worth considering.
In 2004, the FBI and the Secret Service completed a comprehensive study researching threats and characteristics of school shooters. Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates.
They describe a statement by a shooter after the fact.
A young man who brought a rifle into school, killing two students, and wounding several others, told us from his prison cell: “I was really hurting. I didn’t have anybody to talk to. They just didn’t care (page 7).”
They continue emphasizing:
In an educational setting where there is a climate of safety, adults and students respect each other. This climate is defined and fostered by students having a positive connection to at least one adult in authority. In such a climate, students develop the capacity to talk and openly share their concerns without fear of shame and reprisal. They try to help friends and fellow students who are in distress, bringing serious concerns to the attention of adults. Ideally, when this climate of safety is created, students experience a sense of emotional “fit” and of respect. Problems are raised and addressed before they become serious. As a result, the potential for school violence diminishes.
When a member of the school community shows personal pain that might lead them to harm themselves or others, someone is available. Young people can find an adult to trust with this information so that it does not remain “secret” until it is too late (page 7).
Creating a safe school climate makes sense, but when in a school’s busy schedule do students get to meet and learn and care for each other?
How many schools are connecting students with adult mentors and with each other?
It’s rarely clear what opportunities middle and high school students have to get together, other than sports and extracurricular activities, with their teachers or adult mentors, in meaningful ways.
Changing gun laws is critical. But if protecting citizens, especially children, is not a priority by now, it may never be. Teachers and school staff have little control over a student’s home life and whether or not they have access to guns or weapons of any kind.
Adding more counselors, school psychologists, and reducing class sizes so teachers can better get to know their students is also critical. Still, policymakers have failed to support the changes that would help schools better understand the problems students bring to school.
Solutions to date like arming teachers are controversial. Metal detectors, more school resource officers, even shooter drills also raise debate.
Also, for years school districts have relied on threat assessments described here.
Threat assessment is a process of evaluating the threat—and the circumstances surrounding the threat—to uncover any facts or evidence that indicate the threat is likely to be carried out. Student threat assessment can be distinguished from profiling in part because the investigation is triggered by some form of threatening behavior by the student rather than some combination of demographic and personal characteristics.
Certainly, threat assessment, shooting drills, and other safety protocols are essential, but what’s less apparent is how schools work to address student interactions and how children relate to each other before there’s a problem.
Mentors who recognize students who feel disengaged or are experiencing difficulties need a collection of local resources, outside counseling centers, or residential placements, if available, to refer students to if they need additional support.
Let every student know that there’s someone at school to listen and help them through their difficulties, including other students who will care.
This homeroom gathering shouldn’t be treated like group therapy or involve behavioral assessments, tracking, and surveillance. This group should put away phones, no social media.
The group leader might include topics for discussion, but students should be able to carry the conversation and listen to each other every day. It’s simply a time to talk and listen.
We underestimate the power of students given time to connect and support one another in their hurried day, overly focused on success.
Revisiting homeroom, bringing students together with a mentor every day might be the best way to help students unite against student disengagement and mental illness.