Winthrop Faculty Member Advises Educators on Preventing School Shootings

Tuesday, March 13th, 2018

A Winthrop University psychology professor has suggestions for educators looking to protect students in response to recent fatal school shootings across America.

Melissa Reeves, an associate professor in Winthrop’s school psychology program, has given media interviews this month and spoke at a March 1 governor’s sponsored school safety event.

In the latest mass school shooting, a troubled former student shot and killed 17 people with an assault-type rifle on Valentine’s Day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in what was one of the world's deadliest school massacres. The event has reignited national debate over gun laws and school safety.

Trauma Exposure a Threat to Education

Reeves, who is the immediate past president of the National Association of School Psychologists and a national expert on school safety, said trauma exposure is a major psychosocial factor affecting education.

“When students are exposed to a traumatic event, whether it is a one-time event such as a school shooting, or they are exposed to trauma on a daily basis such as physical abuse, they will prioritize survival over learning and socialization,” she said. “School climate and safety are associated with academic achievement. Without a positive environment and supports for students exposed to trauma or supports for those with significant mental health needs, we see significantly lower standardized test scores and higher rates of behavioral and mental health concerns.”

Schools Can Prepare With a Proactive Plan

All schools will experience some level of crisis, Reeves said, and will need to offer mental health services and to plan ahead. “Good crisis planning and preparation, that balances physical and psychological safety efforts, help mitigate traumatic impacts in event of a crisis,” she said.

To date, 33 states require every school and district to have a comprehensive school safety plan. There is an increased trend in requiring various emergency drills, including active shooter drills.

In addition, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have bullying laws, though the laws vary in scope.

A Comprehensive, Proactive Approach Involves:

· A positive school atmosphere that results in trusting relationships among teachers, students and administrators. Students are more apt to come forward with concerns when they feel connected to the adults.

· Trained multi-disciplinary school safety and crisis teams that focus on prevention through recovery.

· Positive approaches to discipline.

· Comprehensive school-based mental and behavioral health services.

· Strong school-community partnerships.

· Trained school resource officers.

· Multidisciplinary school-based threat assessment and behavioral management and suicide risk assessment teams.

· Effective emergency drills that don’t undermine psychological safety or impose additional trauma.

· Confidential reporting systems.

Early Intervention Services Are Key
Reeves said a key message is that districts need to hire more school-employed mental health providers and utilize their school psychologists to provide early intervention services. “In many school districts, school psychologists are utilized only to test for disabilities, and school counselors are only used primarily for scheduling and standardized testing coordination. These professionals need to be providing mental health services to students as we know that helps improve school safety and climate.”

In addition, when services are provided at school, it can eliminate many of the barriers families face when trying to access mental health services for their child, Reeves said.

Many legislative bills are currently being proposed in South Carolina. Reeves and colleagues are engaged with conversations with legislators to help ensure both physical and psychological safety needs are considered when writing these bills.