Preventing School Violence: A Sustainable Approach
When it comes to protecting students from violence, it’s not enough to focus only on security measures, such as hiring security guards, locking doors, or developing emergency plans, said Michelle Bechard, lead public health advisor in the Mental Health Promotion Branch of SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services. What’s needed, she said, is involvement by the whole community — school personnel, law enforcement, the mental health system, community-based organizations, families, and young people themselves.
Multiple levels of involvement and partnership are what the Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) program is all about. Launched in 1999 by the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, and Justice, the program aims to promote safe school environments, healthy childhood development, and mental health and prevent substance use in the nation’s schools.
As a result, each community develops a comprehensive plan that addresses five key elements:
- Safe school environments and violence prevention activities
- Substance use prevention activities
- Student behavioral, social, and emotional supports
- Mental health services
- Early childhood social and emotional learning programs
The SS/HS approach works.
A 2011 report from the White House selected SS/HS as one of three model programs that use a community approach to preventing violence. In fact, President Obama relied on the lessons learned from SS/HS in his response to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, said Ms. Bechard, pointing to the President’s proposed Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education). The initiative would provide mental health “first aid” training and help school districts work with law enforcement, mental health agencies, and other local organizations to ensure that students with mental and/or substance use disorders get referrals to the services they need.
“Project AWARE builds on what we’ve done with SS/HS,” said Ms. Bechard, adding that the initiative relies on the same strategies—partnerships, a comprehensive approach, and shared decision-making.
Meanwhile, Ms. Bechard estimates that three-quarters of the 350-plus former SS/HS grantees are still going strong with at least some of their program components.
Some former grantees have successfully sought funding from their school districts, foundations, or local businesses. Others have evolved into nonprofit organizations that fund their work by teaching other school districts how to launch their own SS/HS programs. Still others use the cost savings the program brings by reducing violence, mental health problems, and other factors to keep the program.
One key to sustainability is the emphasis on constant refinement, said Ms. Bechard. “The program continually changes in response to data,” she said. When data revealed the critical importance of strong leadership, for example, the federal partners began requiring grantees to create a core management team to guide the day-to-day governance of programs. Other strategies for ensuring sustainability include evolving to meet school and community needs, making data-driven decisions, and prioritizing activities with the best outcomes.
Fortunately, said Ms. Bechard, those are the kinds of things that don’t cost money. She points to two successful SS/HS grantees—Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District, MA and School District #709, MN—as examples.
Other key elements of juvenile drug courts include collaborative, interdisciplinary planning with youth, families, and drug court teams; frequent judicial reviews; drug testing; and incentives and sanctions designed to reinforce good behavior and modify bad.
“Sustainability is more than just money,” she emphasized.