By David Stewart, M.A.
The propensity for violence and bullying in schools is an unfortunate reality in our children’s day to day lives. As a teacher at Centennial High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, I work every day with the victims and perpetrators, alike. I have counseled students struggling with anxiety or depression as a direct result of bullying and school violence. I have mediated disputes and broken up fights, and dealt with the growing problems associated with the massive influence that social media plays in our students’ lives.
According to a 2017 Center for Disease Control survey, 24% of students report that they have been in a physical altercation one or more times in the past year. Nearly 20% of students report that they have been bullied on school property, and 19% of students admit to being bullied electronically, which includes through texting or social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat. Perhaps more alarming was that 15.7% of students reported that they carried a weapon in the 30 days prior to taking the survey.
Many ideas have been proposed to curb the violence in our schools, such as the installation of metal detectors, an increase in the number of school police, and even the arming of teachers. However, none of these ideas target one of the major root causes of school violence, the lack of emphasis on mental health diagnosis and treatment, and the availability of these services to our students. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 children aged 13–18 have a mental health condition. These conditions include anxiety, depression, and behavioral conduct disorders. The effects of these disorders have a significant impact on a child’s education and quality of life. NAMI statistics show that 50% of these students will drop out of school and 70% of children involved with juvenile justice systems have a diagnosed mental health condition. Unfortunately, the statistics also show an average of 8–10 years between the onset of symptoms and appropriate intervention by mental health professionals.
Only 71% of schools report that they have the ability to diagnose mental health issues by a licensed mental health professional. Further, only 64% of schools reported that their students have access to treatment by licensed mental health professionals.
When asked to report factors that limit the ability to provide mental health assistance, 75% of schools listed inadequate funding as a primary reason. A similar proportion observed a lack of parental support, and 64% reported inadequate access to licensed mental health professionals. And we see similar, if not worse, trends in Nevada. In May 2017, education policy experts at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, reported that Nevada was ranked at the bottom of all states (51st in 2014) in providing access to mental health care. Further, the recommended student-to-counselor ratio from the American School Counselors Society is 250:1, while the actual ratio in Nevada schools is 508:1, which translates into more than twice the caseload for our counselors than is recommended.
So, what solutions exist to tackle these issues? One answer is additional funding earmarked for mental health diagnosis and treatment in our schools. However, the prospects of funding being allocated for such treatment is subject to a multitude of factors, and is usually outside of the school’s control.
Another solution is the development of healthy and supportive dialogue between teachers, administrators, and students. For example, during the 2017–2018 school years, Centennial High School teachers and administrators began to see a sharp up-tick in school violence. There was an increase in bullying, especially via social media, and physical violence between students. Our Principal, Trent Day, decided to try something new. He decided to form a student advisory group comprised of students of diverse cultures and socioeconomic levels, regardless of their past behavior in school or academic standing. In fact, some students who had a history of physical violence against others, or had participated in bullying, were included as well. After all, who better to help us understand these issues than those involved? At one of their first meetings, the students were asked to come up with a name. They chose the “Bulldog Legislature.” This would be a student advisory group whose mission was to aid the Centennial staff in identifying strategies to combat bullying and violence in the school, and in doing so, perhaps help to minimize the negative effects it has on the mental health of our students.
A year after the student advisory group was formed, violence and bullying at Centennial High School dropped back to more traditional levels. The Bulldog Legislature gave students a voice that never had one before, and students and school administrators learned much in the process. Outside of traditional solutions, we have to experiment with innovative approaches to help eliminate bullying and violence in our schools. The empowerment of historically disenfranchised and forgotten students, who often are contending with trauma and mental health issues in their own lives, is a powerful way to show these students that they matter, especially when no one else in their life may be telling them that they do.