How the fortress mentality impacts kids
By Julie Boyd Cole
After the Parkland High School shooting where 17 people were killed and 17 more were hurt, many schools redoubled their efforts to make their buildings safe from attack and address fears of their students and parents. “We all need to be aware of the realities of our world today,” said Dr. Ken Greene, superintendent of Newton Public Schools in New Jersey.
When a large-scale tragedy occurs, it can cause strong and deeply felt reactions in adults and children across the nation, according to the National Association of School Psychologists.
“I think everyone is on high alert,” said the Stanhope Public Schools Superintendent Steven Hagemann. “We’ve done this before Parkland.”
Anxiety vs. safetyThe anxiety caused by the news of another shooting is also on the minds of educators.
According to Scott Walleck, the anti-bullying coordinator and school safety officer at Vernon Public Schools, for a couple of months after Parkland the school was sensitive to avoiding “accidental” triggers of anxiety.
“We were really careful to what we did,” right after Parkland, Walleck said. “We modified our approach to fire drills. However, I haven’t seen any recent issues. We were really sensitive. We’ve worked our way back to our (regular) surprise drills.”
Most local schools have psychologists and social workers on campus to help students with anxiety caused by any number of issues, including bullying and disabilities.
New Jersey passed an anti-harassment law called the Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying Act eight years ago that requires all schools to take steps to reduce bullying and harassment. In New York, there is a similar law called the Dignity for All Students Act, passed in 2012.
Psychologists, administrators and faculty are trained annually in ways to help defuse harassment situations and identify the difference between a violation under the state law and a simple conflict.
Shootings anxiety?But is all this focus adding additional anxiety to the students in school?
“Social media has become a big aspect,” said Anthony Monti, school psychologist at Goshen’s CJ Hooker Middle School. Social media has made “bullying more frequent and more intense.”
But social media can work both ways, Monti said. As students see national media coverage of tragic situations or are faced with their own personal traumas, they have the opportunity to reach out and find a community to help, he said.
“They can see what can happen,” he said. “They don’t feel as alone. Kids gain confidence and have more opportunity for empowerment.”
In a sampling of local schools by Straus News, most school officials said that although this generation of students face new challenges that are stressful, school officials say they see childrens’ resiliency more than their anxiety.
“Kids adjust better than adults,” Monti said. “They aren’t hardwired yet. They are experiencing new situations and learning something each time.”
“I don’t see someone not coming to school because they are afraid of a school shooting,” the Goshen school psychologist said. “They are going about their business.”
According to Ken Greene, Newton’s superintendent, schools today are central to the well-being of children and families.
“I think part of the answer is to address issues holistically,” Greene said. “We need a much more individual approach” when dealing with children and their needs. The one-size-fits-all approach isn’t going to work.”
“We’re perhaps, more than previous generations that focused solely on academics, finding out [that] whatever the individual student may need is part of our daily work,” he said.
In order to achieve this, community services and school systems need to work together and share resources, he said.
Though the school officials we interviewed believe they are properly resourced, there is not consensus among the experts.
In a 2015 report by the National Association of School Psychologists, 13 to 20 percent of American children experience a mental disorder in a given year and called for “improving collaboration among schools, community providers and families.
The Association said that school mental health providers needed to broaden their scope beyond special education to include mental health support that don’t meet the criteria of a “disability.”
Many school officials, such as Dr. Greene, concur and are working to do just that.
“The world (students) live in is a much more complex world,” Greene said.