As school counselors, we are often looked to for answers to these questions in an effort to help try to make sense of what seems unthinkable, and to reassure communities that schools are safe places for students and staff. I was able to discuss this topic this past Wednesday on KGAL Talk Radio (starts at 37:38), a station based in Albany, Oregon, where this latest incident occurred. One of the main questions the program host had for me was, "What are the warning signs?" The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has a list of risk factors for youth violence. It is important to note that just because a student may be exhibiting or experiencing some of these risk factors does not necessarily mean that they are going to commit an act of violence--correlation and causation are not the same thing. A few of them are:
- History of victimization
- Substance use and misuse
- History of emotional distress/mental health concerns
- Exposure to family violence
- Antisocial beliefs (spoken, written, posted online)
- Poor family functioning
- Low parental involvement
- Inconsistent, extreme, or relaxed discipline standards at home
- Social rejection amongst peers
- Membership in a delinquent or anti-social peer group
- Lack of involvement in school or community activities
- Poor academic and school performance
Does this mean that every child that has one or more of these risk-factors is planning to do harm? Of course not. However, as school counselors we deal with that list every day at all levels, elementary through high-school. If a child is not having success with peers at school, we develop friendship and social-skills groups to help them build connections with other students. We might also work with students on finding some club or activity they can participate in that would increase their connection to the school and community. Meanwhile, we are educating our whole schools about bullying, the roles of bullying (including that of the bystander), the consequences of bullying, and how to report bullying, all in an attempt to lessen student victimization and isolation as well as increasing empathy amongst our populations. If students are not finding success at school, we help teach study and organization skills. We work to build relationships between teachers and students to improve communication and therefore, academic success. If a child is struggling with mental illness, we work with the family and additional support personnel such as a school psychologist or social worker, connecting them to resources within and outside of the school to give them the help they need. Our relationship with the families of our students can often allow us to help strengthen the connection between students and parents if they are going through a particularly difficult time together. The very nature of our role within schools is to support all of our students, and we are uniquely qualified to help address the risk factors presented here. Further, in my interview, one of the things that I felt was most important about this latest incident in Albany, OR, was that it was prevented. The student in question made statements that were concerning, and ultimately someone reported this to the authorities. Again, because our role in schools is ideally a non-punitive one, we work hard to establish relationships with all of the students on our case-loads so that they feel comfortable talking to at least one adult within building.
Beyond addressing individual risk factors, school counselors can also help to develop resiliency skills in children. What is this, exactly? Basically, we are teaching skills and strategies that help children develop protective factors and build coping mechanisms so that as challenges inevitably arise throughout their lives, they are more able to deal with them successfully. By teaching these concepts, you are giving them a "toolbox" that they can open when the road gets bumpy, even if there is no one else around to give them support. Fairfax County Public Schools in Fairfax County, Virginia, has developed a resiliency program, based upon work by Henderson and Milstein. There are six components:
- Increase pro-social bonding
- Set clear, consistent boundaries
- Teach life skills
- Provide caring and support
- Set and communicate high-expectations
- Provide opportunities for meaningful participation
If we look at these six components in more detail, school counselors are highly qualified to teach students skills, help them practice these skills, and then assist them with applying them to their own lives. As stated before, we teach lessons and develop groups to help students develop appropriate social skills. We teach children coping skills. We are able to provide support to not only students, but also to families, teachers, and school personnel. Through goal setting and post-secondary planning, we are helping to communicate high-expectations but also giving them the steps to reach these expectations. Finally, though our lessons and groups, as well as by connecting them to activities, clubs, and groups, we are helping students to find ways to share their unique thoughts and talents in a meaningful way with their communities. For more information and additional resources that you can use to help build resiliency in your own students, click on the links presented above.
However, as I spoke about in my radio interview, to be able to form trusting relationships with students and families, to be able to develop and implement interventions that address possible risk factors, and to build resiliency in all students, we need to have school counselors present in every school, and we need to have reasonable ratios. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends a ratio of 1:250. Yet, Oregon, where this latest incident occurred, stands at 1:553. More extreme situations exist in states like California, where the ratio sits at 1:1016, or in the city of Philadelphia, which has just enacted a school budget that will cut school counselors, in addition to arts programs, librarians, and athletics--programs that can help decrease isolation and increase connections between students and schools. Given the opportunity, we are capable of doing so much to create safe and welcoming environments for all students, as well as develop supportive interventions for students who are struggling.