By Mary Niederberger, Rich Lord and Joe Smydo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
PITTSBURGH — Teaching students alternatives to violence and improving their access to mental-health services are among the best ideas officials say they have for preventing the kind of bloodshed that has struck a long list of schools, including Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville, Pa.
But they say progress on arresting school violence nationwide has been hamstrung by a lack of funding, deployment of school-safety programs that haven’t worked and a failure to properly train school staff and students.
“We’re 15 years after Columbine, and you’d have thought we would have solved that problem,” said John Matthews, executive director of the Texas-based Community Safety Institute, referring to the 1999 rampage at a Colorado high school in which seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold fatally shot 12 students and a teacher and injured about 20 others before committing suicide.
A new Vanderbilt University study suggests that teaching younger students conflict-resolution skills — to think before they act — could be more effective than other techniques for reducing violence.
The study included a review of 27 school-safety programs nationwide and discussion sessions with Nashville, Tenn., youths who were victims of violence. Researcher Manny Sethi, an orthopedic trauma surgeon and a Vanderbilt assistant professor of orthopedic surgery and rehabilitation, said it may be necessary to teach those problem-solving skills before the high school years.
“At that point, it’s very hard to kind of change behavior,” Sethi said.
While conflict-resolution skills may help, demand also is growing for improved mental-health services in and out of school.
“There’s a lot of hurting kids in our schools,” said Beverly Kingston, director of the Center for the Study of the Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado Boulder, said.
Like Sethi, Kingston said the earlier that kids are helped, the better. “We need to put in place social-emotional learning programs, starting in preschool,” she said.
After the mass stabbings at Franklin Regional, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett emphasized the need to focus on mental-health services. But mental-health professionals in Pennsylvania schools say funding cuts in recent years have prompted across-the-board reductions in school counselors, social workers and psychologists.
“The logical response to all of this is to recognize that schools are the first line of defense for mental-health supports for students and to recognize that we are at a shortage for support personnel,” said Julia Szarko, president of the Association of School Psychologists in Pennsylvania and a school psychologist in the Central Bucks (Pa.) School District.
Szarko, who has a doctorate in school psychology, said the School District of Philadelphia last year eliminated all of its school counselors to save enough money to maintain its academic program.
Steven Berkowitz, who co-chairs the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s Disaster and Trauma Committee, said politicians often follow school tragedies with speeches about dealing with mental-health issues — but don’t follow up with legislation or financial commitments.
“Politicians often aren’t specific about these plans because it sounds good, but they are not willing to pay for it,” said Berkowitz, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.
U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA), has been pushing Congress for an overhaul of mental-health services. Among other provisions, his Helping Families in Crisis Mental Health Act would attempt to improve access to psychiatric care by integrating it into primary-care and pediatric practices.
Violent acts in schools “are rarely spontaneous” and many had “been developing over a long period of time, offering many opportunities to intervene in a mental-health crisis situation,” Murphy said in a written statement.
From anti-bullying and zero-tolerance initiatives to metal detectors and programs that allow students to report threats anonymously, schools have embraced a variety of measures to keep schools safe.
But some simply don’t work, Sethi said. After reviewing data on 27 programs, he and his team decided to pilot one of them — designed by Harvard psychologist Ron Slaby — in a violence-plagued Nashville middle school.
Before the study, the students completed questionnaires regarding their beliefs about violence and ability to manage volatile situations. Over several weeks, students used role-playing to learn how to avoid violence at heated moments, such as when one student calls another a name or hits on a peer’s girlfriend.
Sethi said the exercises helped students “build the machinery of understanding conflict and how it progresses and how to get yourself out of it.”
On a second questionnaire, administered after the exercises, students reported that they were less likely than before to be a target of bullying, less likely to hit or push others, less likely to cheer if a fight broke out and more likely to try to defuse a potential altercation. Some of the improvements were statistically significant, while others fell below that threshold.
Even if schools identify them as troubled, students often don’t get the help they need, especially not on a consistent, long-term basis, Matthews said. He said Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people and himself during a 2007 shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, received care and monitoring at home.
“When he went to college, that was all out the door, and you saw that downward spiral,” Matthews said.
Despite many high-profile incidents of school violence, educators and others have fallen short in key areas, said Matthews, who wasn’t speaking specifically about Franklin Regional.
Instead of tailoring safety plans to their campuses, school officials often use generic plans and compound the problem with improper training of staff and students. He said schools should drill for crises that might occur at the beginning of the school day — such was the case at Franklin Regional — or in gyms and cafeterias.
“The staff training is minimal at best, and for students, it’s even worse,” he said.
Alicia Chico, a social worker with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, said strategies are available for training staff and identifying troubled students. But, she said, teachers are often too busy to deal with the issues.
“This has to start with who is interacting with students the most and that is the teacher. But a lot of times these issues aren’t addressed because teachers have so many things they have to get done and so many constraints on them,” Chico said.
Cirecie West-Olatunji, president of the American Counseling Association, agreed that more training and consultation with mental-health professions is needed for classroom teachers. In addition, she said, counselors, social workers and school psychologists should be given time to walk the halls of schools and develop relationships with students and their families.
Photo Credit: AFP/Scott Olson