CCSD and the potential of mental health services

high school We all have memories of that place, whether it’s the tasteless bean burritos served at lunch, or the first prom, or maybe a speech we gave at graduation. But today’s high schoolers are trying to build memories in a much less friendly environment. I asked my high school aged sister why she didn’t attend basketball games at her school. She surprisingly responded that she did not want to be pepper sprayed, hearing from other students that the School Police Officers (SPOs) would pepper spray students at almost every game. To many parents in Las Vegas, that scene might make sense at a violent protest, or maybe in attempted purse snatching, but at a high school basketball game?

For years, many students in CCSD have rallied behind anti-School Police messaging, citing what they feel is an abuse of power. Despite data from many trusted sources that conclude SPOs led to increased arrests for “noncriminal, youthful activities” as the Brookings Institution puts it, school districts, including ours here in Southern Nevada, continue to expand their police units. In fact, in CCSD, while the budget for licensed staff and support staff rose by a mere 1.4-1.8% between 2014-2019, the budget for SPO salaries increased by 8.4%, according to Clark County School District’s 2018-2019 fiscal year budget . This increase in SPO salary occurred amid historic teacher shortages, as many educators cite the need for higher pay.

On top of these already severe circumstances, the recent return to in-person learning after the disruption caused by COVID-19 leads to an even greater problem surrounding school discipline. We all experienced the unique social consequences of the pandemic. Not only was our way of life upended but returning to a “normal” world meant re-learning how to engage with fellow students and teachers. For children, this was and continues to be especially difficult. Over a year of online schooling in Clark County for K-12 students required learning in a home environment away from friends and countless lost opportunities to socialize with fellow students and friends. Now more than ever, students are relearning the do’s and don’ts of being in a classroom. Our schools should be accommodating and cooperative, but instead youthful behavior is too often met with brutal crackdowns of force. The recent horrific incidents of violence upon teachers and fellow peers alike – each one inexcusable – contributes to an increasingly tense and confrontational environment.

The first seven months of the 2021-2022 school year saw an unprecedented increase in CCSD school violence, with some 6,827 calls to the police for violent offenses. In addition to these offenses, nearly 800 students were arrested, a frightening number of students transported to adult or juvenile holding facilities. What can be done to address this obvious problem with rising violence in our schools? The district continues to show in its budgets and policy choices that their answer is, more police. There comes a time though to assess the efficacy of policy decisions when they continue to yield worse and worse results. If school violence continues to rise, and school police budgets continue to rise as well, it may be time to consider other options to improve K-12 safety for students, teachers, and staff.

Violence in CCSD schools is an obviously significant problem given this data and clearly the policies in place have not been successful in reducing these terrible incidents. Yet, the school district continues to pursue methods of behavioral discipline that do nothing but temporarily remove a student from school. Arresting a young person for his or her behavior and sending children to alternative facilities, does not address the failure to provide adequate mental health services in our schools. Emotional and mental illness may be the underlying causes of some of the behavioral outbursts that contribute to a growing crisis that is not unique to Clark County School District. The burden does not rest only on the student’s mental health either. The American Psychological Association wrote a report regarding educator and school staff during COVID-19 and found that 49% of teachers of the 9,370 surveyed nationwide had a “desire or plan to quit or transfer jobs. It may come as no surprise that at least 1/3 of surveyed teachers said they personally experienced at least one incident of violence from a student during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that influenced that decision. This survey helps show just how intense the increase in school violence has become. But how do we fix an issue that seems to be spiraling out of control?

Rather than relying solely upon an increasing investment in school police officers, CCSD should increase funding for mental health counseling, a service desperately lacking from many CCSD schools. The National Alliance for Mental Illness reports that 20% of youth will develop mental health difficulties and that 75% of K-12 children will receive their mental health care in schools. According to a recent publication by the Lincy Institute and Brookings Mountain West, Nevada has ranked 50th in youth mental health metrics since 2015 and for that reason, the problem of school violence is no longer about misbehaving children.

Students have legitimate mental health concerns and deserve quality mental health professionals and resources. In their editorial opinion published in the Nevada Current, Caitlin Saladino and William Brown speak about continued action at the state and national levels to increase funding for mental health, but change in Nevada doesn’t seem to be keeping pace with action. Schools in CCSD have a habit of haphazardly addressing youth behavior leading to unnecessary trauma and arrests that can stem from problems that should be addressed with professional psychological help; increased levels of funding only do so much if action isn’t taken to use that money efficiently. CCSD students have seen enough of the current ways of discipline to know that it’s time to try something new, why not start by caring for the young person’s physical well-being AND their mental health?

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