The lock-down drills, the security cameras, the guards at school doors — they’re all unnecessary, if trained, sensitive staff can see trouble brewing before it comes to some hideous boil, and bring the arts of human understanding, of care and compassion, to the task of healing.
That’s the hope, and it is part of the still-forming plan.
“In the context of a larger comprehensive security plan, you do things with security systems, you do things with the physical plant,” Superintendent Deborah Low said. “All of this is important. And this proactive piece is also important.
“By proactive, I mean identifying and intervening early when there are signs of possible things to worry about. You’re looking for ways to identify and support early signs of distress.”
Voters just approved $731,000 for security improvements to school buildings. And of the $515,000 added to 2013-14 school operating budget for security last winter, most is for staff like security guards and school resource officers. But $65,000 is designated to address what has been called “the mental health aspect.” It is the part of the security challenge that the Newtown tragedy and a list of other senseless shootings — Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech — made all too clear.
“When these violent tragedies happen,” Ms. Low said, “are there certain themes or threads or patterns that might be identified early on so we can get the right support and services so this person doesn’t get to the level of violence and destruction?”
There are no easy answers, but a direction seems clear.
“What we have to do is some training,” Ms. Low said. “We need to learn more. A lot of it’s around increasing staff awareness and understanding — including myself.”
Overseeing the effort is Karen Berasi, who, as director support services, heads a team of 11 psychologists, 17 guidance counselors, 11 nurses, and a social worker.
“She works on school climate issues, the anti-bullying effort,” Ms. Low said. “It is certainly appropriate to have her lead this.”
The initial focus of training will be Ms. Berasi and her support staff, the school principals, and Craig Tunks, who as school technology director is involved in all security initiatives.
“And then we’ll assess what is most appropriate training to roll out to the staff,” Ms. Low said. “Who needs it, what do they need, how much do they need?”
There isn’t yet a large body of definitive research on acts of mass school violence. But there’s some.
“There’s a pattern that points to feelings of being recurringly bullied and persecuted over long periods of time, and there’s sort of a building up,” Ms. Low said.
It’s worrisome when a generic pass-times like video games evolve into “vengeance fantasies” focused on people. “More personal, and using it as a kind of acting out scenario,” Ms. Low said.
She emphasized that video games alone weren’t cause for alarm. “A lot of people play video games,” she said.
Studying violent acts, planning things — that’s a worry.
“The individuals get into a planning kind of mode, where they’ll study Columbine and say ‘What if? Maybe I could?’ There’s some evidence of pre-planning in the research,” Ms. Low said.
“Another strand that the little body of research seems to point to is some kind of access to weapons.
“There is no straight line, there is not one factor,” Ms. Low said. “I don’t want to come off as the expert. This is what we’ve heard and this is what we want to explore.”
School authorities await the state’s comprehensive report on the Newtown incident.
“If there are more psychological insights, then we’ll need to be aware of those,” Ms. Low said.
Any school has students with psychological problems, family trouble, kids struggling with adolescence, identity. Helping them is an end in itself. The recent history of violent acts add urgency.
“As a school, we have to build identification and support systems,” Ms. Low said.
“The little bit of research that’s out there points to staff and community working collectively: If there are families out there under tremendous stress, or distress, or students that may be nearing a breaking point, a push point, how do we set up that identification?”
Any new approaches will build on a substantial base. The schools already teach children how to get along, to treat each other with respect, and to show kindness.
“Obviously a safe-school climate, anti-bullying efforts, are something we all need to look at,” Ms. Low said.
Ms. Berasi elaborated.
“It’s called a ‘positive school climate.’ It’s very nurturing,” she said.
“Each school has a climate specialist. It’s typically the principal or the assistant principal. They have surveyed the students and families. Each school has a Positive School Climate Committee. On that committee are not only staff members, but parents. They look at ways to improve climate at the school.”
The elementary schools have long used the “Responsive Classroom” program.
“Responsive Classroom is one way. It builds a positive climate within the school — respecting others,” Ms. Berasi said.
“It’s a pretty explicit program our teachers have received training in,” Ms. Low said. “It’s pretty well embedded. It’s part of our elementary school culture.
The school day starts with a morning meeting where all students greet one another, share some something. “None of this takes hours, but it’s ‘OK, we’re starting a new school day, we’re together.’ Gentle reminders of what the norms are,” Ms. Low said.
“It’s core beliefs, age appropriate,” she said. “But students are taught how you work out conflicts.
“There are also celebrations, like ‘Catch kids being good.’ Somebody spilled something and you helped them mop it up. Or somebody’s new and you go and sit next to them.”
Each secondary school has an “advisory program” — it’s in its third year at the high school, and is starting in both middle schools.
Every eighth day the high school’s students go to “advisory groups” of 12 to 18 kids — and talk. The groups are led by staff members — “Virtually everybody at the high school has one,” Ms. Low said — and there are topics or themes for discussion.
But it’s not about specific content so much as getting people talking, sharing values —“to set up a discussion context that fosters student-staff relationships that go beyond academics,” Ms. Low said.
“Some of the research, going back to this larger security issue, the more relationships students can form with a trusted, caring adult, is a positive thing,” she said. “It helps in lots of different areas.”
“We build opportunities into the system for students to have at least one trusted, caring positive adult role model,” Ms. Berasi said. “It helps in having students feel connected to the school community.”
“It also builds relationships among the students themselves,” Ms. Low said. “It gives them an opportunity to get to know kids they might not otherwise know … You get to interact with people who aren’t like you.”
The $65,000 may also give the schools options if concerns do arise.
“There might be psychological consultations with a student and family — we need a funding stream available,” Ms. Low said. “We don’t have a psychiatrist on staff, but we have psychiatrists we work with.”
The approach will be open, flexible.
“The first step is training, educating ourselves, setting up those procedures,” Ms. Berasi said. “But right now we’re at the very beginning.”
“The goal this year is training and awareness, and what else do we need to be looking for?” Ms. Low said. “What are we missing?”