Our students face unprecedented challenges, with increasing access to information, fears over school safety, and the stress of both home and academic life. As a school system, it is our responsibility to care for the mental health of our students and ensure that they feel safe within our school walls. But we must go beyond what we have traditionally defined as “safety.” We are in a new era with new challenges that require bold policies.
The mental health of our students should be of the utmost priority for our district. It is the responsibility of our school system to protect our students, and that extends beyond just their physical safety. Our students are grappling with the complexities of growing up in the 21st century, surrounded by the internet and issues such as cyber-bullying. Therefore, we must begin to implement social emotional learning within our schools. Social emotional learning allows our students to gather necessary to succeed academically. These skills center around developing our students’ understanding of their goals, emotions, and experiences. The power of social emotional learning lies in its ability to not only provide the tools for academic success and coping with stress, but also the ability to confront the issues students face in modern society. Our district must expand the use of social emotional learning, providing students with the opportunity to understand the importance of their mental health. The stress of academics, extracurriculars, and personal issues can be overwhelming, and by providing social emotional learning curriculum to our students we can help them cope with these stressors. Through both online and in-class resources, we can redefine what a traditional education looks like, incorporating the emotional and “soft” skills our students need to succeed. By implementing social emotional learning fully into our schools, we can ensure that our schools help truly develop our students, both in their knowledge of curriculum and in their understanding of their own well-being and health.
In Miami-Dade County the ratio of students to counselors as of 2019 was 462 to 1. Meanwhile, the American Counseling Association recommends a student to counselor ratio of 250 to 1. Although the county has made strides towards mental health awareness with the development of the Department of Mental Health Services, we have not yet reached the necessary points to properly serve our students. Despite hiring increases, our schools need more counselors in order to ensure the care of our students and proper attention. Our counselors serve immensely important roles in the development of our students, providing much needed guidance and information to lead students on the path to success. Under the current level of work delegated to counselors, it is immensely difficult to provide every student with attention they deserve. We must, therefore, decrease our current student-counselor ratio, to the point where our county at least meets the guidelines established by the American Counseling Association.
As a district, we must lead on mental health awareness, and that includes ensuring that we are properly staffed to provide support to our students. Another area of concern is the lack of dedicated mental health professionals in school. While the district has hired more professionals to service our students, the current level and rate is not enough. Our students necessitate access to resources that allow them to grapple with their social and emotional circumstances, and our district fails our responsibility to them when they are not provided with such resources. At the district level, there must be an increase in the number of employed mental health professionals; furthermore, they must be made clearly accessible to students so that they are aware of this resource. Through increasing the number of counselors and mental health professionals, ensuring each student’s individualized attention, we can create a school system that prioritizes the mental health and well-being of our students.
Our definition of safety cannot be based only on reacting to situations as they develop; rather, it needs to be proactive in preventing dangerous situations from developing to begin with. Increasing the police presence in our schools will not inherently make our students feel safer; in fact, some evidence suggests that the current trend in increasing School Resource Officers actually creates a less inclusive school environment. While the dedication to our schools of our School Resource Officers is important and appreciated, as a district, it is our responsibility to balance both the physical and psychological well-being of our students. “Safety” is not simply punishing students for inappropriate actions, it is the absence of those actions in the first place. Our goal should be to use preventative measures, such as social emotional learning and counselor visits, to ensure that issues do not develop to a degree where police action is necessary. Our schools should be designed to ensure that our students are safe, and that means fostering close faculty-student relationships that allow for early identification of potential issues. In addition, an increase in availability for mental health resources and counselors will allow students to address their concerns and receive the help they need. By promoting an environment of inclusivity in our schools, we can prevent actions associated with social ostracization from occurring. Furthermore, by fostering a feeling of community within our schools, we can help our students feel safe within school walls, knowing that they are surrounded by people that truly care for one another. In conjunction with the work of our school staff and counselors, we can instill a sense of confidence in our community that our schools are safe spaces for our students. By valuing prevention over punishment, we will promote true safety within our schools.