Columbia, SC — Youth are being killed daily in high numbers, usually by guns. Most are not in schools and do not get major headlines. The Center for Disease Control says homicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 15-24; 83 percent of the deaths are caused by a firearm. Fewer than 2 percent of these homicides occur at school.
Many of the gun-control recommendations being discussed as a response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School would help. School resource officers can help, although you can’t just throw a police officer, or a civilian, into a school and expect that to work; school resource officers require special training.
But those are only the beginning. The National Institute of Mental Health says that 20 percent of students experience significant mental-health challenges. An additional 16 percent may experience significant emotional and mental wellness challenges. These are huge numbers. Effective responses call for insight and doing things that are proactive and prevention-focused.
The Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education say there is no reliable profile of a school shooter but the shooters almost always tell someone and in other ways call out for help. A major recommendation is that schools create a climate that does not tolerate bullying, where teachers, administrators, students and parents work together to have a safe school where it is a mark of courage to help take care of your school community.
There are ways to accomplish this, and South Carolina has a foundation to build on. We have one of the nation’s strongest and longest-standing programs to provide mental-health counselors in schools; this program needs funding to expand to all schools. And we have a history with a process that reduces major discipline problems by 50 percent or more: School Wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports. The Education Department needs to increase training and coaching, to strengthen this program statewide.
These programs can benefit students who never commit violence, but lead diminished lives due to emotional, behavioral and mental health challenges.
We hope that the Sandy Hook tragedy will lead us to actually do something instead of just talking until the energy drains away. But if we stop at gun control and school resource monitors, we will miss the strongest possible protection for our youth: the array of emotional, behavioral and mental health supports that can turn kids’ lives around.