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School safety: Fund more counselors for students’ emotional health

While there’s a renewed push to boost spending on school safety through more locks and tighter security to fortify schools, a new study of school shootings suggests that will not be enough to prevent future school shootings.

An in-depth study of 45 school shootings since the Columbine High School shooting of 20 years ago shows all the shooters were former students and were well acquainted with how to access their schools. They may have even gotten ideas from maximizing casualties based on their knowledge of where students go during lockdown drills in which they themselves participated.

Researchers Jillian Peterson, a Hamline University criminologist, and James Densley, a sociologist at Metro State University, examined school shootings and came up with conclusions on prevention that challenge the school fortification idea and other conventional wisdom.

In 20 years since Columbine, nothing has worked to prevent school shootings, Peterson told Minnesota Public Radio. The researchers suggest a very different approach to preventing school shootings.

They say teachers and staff need greater engagement with students to find the intervention points with troubled students. Their research showed that 91 percent of the shooters were current or former students, that many had a history of trauma as a risk factor for violence and 80 percent had suicidal thoughts or had expressed threats in the past.

Peterson and Densley say the threats are a critical point of intervention that can lead to prevention of violence. Schools need more counselors and social workers as much or even more than they need new security systems.

Engaging with at-risk students means schools may need to have more after school programs and more counselors on site. When students make threats they may need to be asked what they “need” before or, in place of, a turn at juvenile court.

Minnesota has made some progress providing more funding for schools to hire more counselors but the ratios of students to counselors remain far below the national averages. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students for every one counselor. The Mankato Public Schools ratio is about 475 to 1 and Minnesota statewide ratio is 700 to 1.

So far Minnesota has focused more resources on securing school facilities than funding counselors. Last year, the Legislature approved $25 million in bonding to improve the safety and security of school buildings. Another $26 million was vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton who objected to controversial provisions of all manner in the large mega omnibus bills put together by the Republicans.

In 2016, the Legislature set aside just $16 million for schools to increase the number of counselors.

In light of the new research, there’s now clear evidence that attacking student emotional health problems at the front end will help prevent school violence.

While Gov. Tim Walz’s education budget boosts per pupil school funding 3 percent in the first year and 2 percent in the second year, there does not appear to be any provisions to urge schools to spend it hiring counselors.

We urge the governor and Legislature to vastly increase their investments in school counselors, psychologists and social workers to, at the very least, bring Minnesota up to national averages.

Researchers Peterson and Densley say student threats may be cries for help. Let’s do all we can to recognize and answer those cries.

— The Free Press of Mankato

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