A School Environment Can Positively (or Negatively) Affect a Student’s Mental Health
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. For some time, educators have known that more focus should be placed on the social emotional wellbeing of students — the whole child — particularly for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. In the shadow of the pandemic, it has become even more apparent that extra focus needs to be given to the mental health of our students. But, in far too many of our schools, that focus is misguided at best, and harmful at worst.
The CDC recently released new data from the Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey (ABES), which showed the extent of the challenges youth faced during COVID. It found 44% of students had experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, 1 in 5 students seriously considered suicide, and about 1 in 10 students attempted suicide. These numbers are even worse for students of color, who have higher rates of poor mental health and not feeling close to persons at school. These students were severely impacted by the pandemic and faced more racism when they returned to school.
I recently delivered a keynote address to educators and administrators at the BARR National Conference on the important role schools and communities play in providing wraparound supports to students amid this mental health crisis. And this week, I was honored to connect with TV viewers and radio listeners across the country to discuss evidence-based approaches to improve the social, emotional, and academic development of our students.
It troubles me that — amid a surge in school gun violence, along with increased reports of behavioral problems with students — lawmakers and school leaders nationwide are moving to “harden” schools with more metal detectors and school resource officers (SROs), as well as implement harsh discipline policies in the name of improving the school environment.
Not only have these reflexive measures been proven ineffective, U.S. Department of Education data has consistently shown stark disparities in how discipline is implemented in schools. Among the findings: Black students are corporally punished at twice the rate of White students, and students with disabilities are more likely to be corporally punished than their nondisabled peers.
Ed Trust released a report a few years ago that outlined how girls of color often face discipline policies that are subjective and based on biases and stereotypes. Think about this: Black girls are five times more likely than White girls to be suspended at least once from school. And in a follow-up brief released last month, we explain how misguided school discipline policies can negatively impact a student’s social, emotional, and academic development.
We must discuss ways to create physically safe and emotionally supportive school environments for all students. A good start would be for schools to adopt evidence-based approaches such as restorative justice that can be used to build and repair relationships while also holding students accountable for their actions. Instead of investing in hiring or funding SROs or supporting behavioral threat assessments, investments should be made in supportive personnel, such as school counselors, social workers, school psychologists, and others, as well as in healing-centered and restorative practices.
States like New York, Massachusetts, and Delaware are leading the way on the seven criteria we determined could best improve school discipline policies. Other states should follow their lead on issues like better professional development, better reporting of discipline data, and restrictions of the use of restraints on students.
It is my hope that advocates around the country will push schools and districts to replace antiquated policies and mindsets that attempt to “police” or “fix” students with positive discipline practices that are fairly implemented through a race-equity lens. It is possible to support the social, emotional, and academic development of all students, and create safe and respectful learning environments — all at the same time. For more information, visit edtrust.org/mentalhealth.