The story of Keyshawn. “I’m not going to talk to you” were the first words that Keyshawn said to the school psychologist who was assigned to work with him. Keyshawn was nine years old. He had an extensive history of trauma and abuse. In a fit of rage, he turned over an entire classroom. He caused thousands of dollars in damage and he had to be restrained by a school resource officer while he was using a chair to smash school windows. Fortunately, the school psychologist gave Keyshawn the time and space he needed to feel comfortable and open up. She met with him outside the classroom and offered him tissues and water, which he reluctantly took. Then she asked him to take her to his favorite place in the school and they proceeded to go to a large oak tree where students gather for recess. She also validated his frustrations and provided him with emotional support. Keyshawn then melted. He began crying loudly, shaking, and profusely apologizing; he wrapped his arms around the school psychologist while he wept. Keyshawn and the school psychologist began therapy the next day and worked with his teacher to develop a trauma-sensitive classroom.
The story of Chloe. Chloe did not fit in. According to her own words, she “was not like the other girls.” Chloe was feeing increasingly more attracted to her female peers. However, her family ascribed to traditional values and they did not accept non-heterosexual relationships. Therefore, Chloe was very worried that her family might find out about her sexual interest in other girls. Because of pain associated with living “in the closet,” Chloe began cutting herself with razors, glass, and other sharp objects. Her family members were confused by her behavior. They wondered why she would deliberately hurt herself when she had everything: beauty, intelligence—and she was making good grades. Fortunately, the cuts on Chloe’s arm were noticed by a concerned teacher. Her teacher then encouraged Chloe to start seeing a counselor who helped her immensely. She and her counselor worked together on problem-solving and developed strategies to reduce Chloe’s emotional distress. They saw each other twice a week for a semester. Chloe is now in college and she is doing well.
The story of Jared. It was the first week of school, a week that often sets the tone for the rest of the year, and Jared had already gotten in a fight with another student. He was suspended for fighting but the other student was not. This enraged Jared and he vowed revenge. Jared told a friend that he was going to bring a gun to school and shoot the student that he fought, as well as the school’s assistant principal whom he blamed for his suspension. Fortunately, Jared’s friend took this threat seriously and he told his mother who then called a teacher she knew at Jared’s school. Immediately, consistent with the school’s established safety plan, local authorities were contacted and the police searched Jared and his possessions. They found a gun in his backpack and a suicide note. Upon expulsion, Jared was sent to a residential treatment center where he and his family received intensive therapy.
What is common in these stories is that concerned educators, as well as school-based mental health professionals, students, parents, administrators, and local police officers, all stepped in to support students’ mental health and ensure school safety. In the first story, a school psychologist had the forbearance to look past the student’s abusive words and the equanimity to provide emotional support. In the second story, a teacher noticed that a student was in distress and had the foresight to refer her for counseling. Lastly, in the third story, a range of educators and others from the community acted to avert a potential tragedy while providing a highly distraught student with the support that he needed. Overall, these stories underscore how creating safe and supportive schools and fostering students’ mental health is a job for all members of school communities—not just for school-based mental health professionals, administrators, and school resources officers (SROs). Moreover, to maximize these efforts, all educators such as teachers, administrators, teachers’ aides, school-based mental health professionals, and other key adults at school must come together and work collaboratively.
Creating Safe Schools and Fostering Students’ Mental Health
Educators are well positioned to help create safe and supportive schools and to foster students’ mental health. In fact, they are on the front line with these efforts as they influence the way that students feel at school. In addition, they frequently encounter students with mental health problems. In support of the former, educators typically spend almost eight hours per day with the students they teach and support in varying capacities. Moreover, many students report that educators are among the most important adults in their lives (Sulkowski, Demaray, & Lazarus, 2012; Woolley & Bowen, 2007). Further, regarding the role of educators in supporting students’ mental health, one study found that approximately three-quarters of educators report having worked with or encountered a student with a serious mental health problem during the past year (Reinke, Stormont, Herman, Puri, & Goel, 2011). Thus, educators have tremendous power to influence learning environments and impact the lives of the students they serve. To help in this regard, Chapter 2
discusses strategies for creating safe and supportive schools.
But isn’t the role of educators to teach? Although it is true that delivering rich instruction remains the central role for educators, thousands of educators across the U.S. and beyond are now also helping to foster students’ emotional well-being. Research suggests that educators are becoming increasingly open to supporting students’ mental health. Specifically, results from a study by Reinke et al. (2011) indicate that the overwhelming majority of teachers (94 percent) report that schools should be involved in the delivery of mental health services to students, which indicates that the majority of educators view their role as being broader than just delivering instruction. Unfortunately, however, in the same study, 66 percent of teachers reported that they lacked the skills necessary to support students with mental health problems. Therefore, an obvious need exists for providing educators with the knowledge and skills they can use to support students’ complex and multifaceted mental health needs. Chapters 3
, and 6
discuss individual and whole-school efforts to foster students’ mental health.
The Evolving Role of Educators in Public Education
Schools have not always been democratic institutions in the U.S. Prior to compulsory school acts—first in Massachusetts in 1852 and last in Mississippi in 1917—education largely was reserved for the wealthy (Jeynes, 2007; Rothbard, 1999). Schools enrolled children from affluent families and these students were taught skills that would enable them to navigate the upper echelons of society successfully. However, U.S. education has become increasingly more egalitarian in that its role has changed from being a vehicle for propagating the status quo to a mechanism for social advancement, cohesion, and justice (Boli, Ramirez, & Meyer, 1985).
As a general trend, public education has become increasingly more inclusive throughout the twentieth century. Following the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (347 U.S. 483) in 1954 that established that separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional, great strides have been made toward opening the doors of education to all students, regardless of their race, ethnicity, background, or beliefs (see Kluger  for review). However, as schools became more inclusive of students from culturally diverse backgrounds, students with disabilities were often still prohibited from benefiting from public education (Sulkowski & Joyce-Beaulieu, 2014). In fact, it was not until the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. 794; 34 C.F.R. 300.1 et. seq.) that Federal programs could no longer discriminate against individuals on the basis of their disability.
To provide protections to students with disabilities, President Gerald Ford signed into law the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (Public Law [PL] 94-142). This major piece of legislation has been aptly described as the “Bill of Rights for Handicapped Children.” The implementation of PL 94-142 had a profound effect on exceptional student education. Children with disabilities who were not previously served in schools were afforded a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) centering on special education and related services (Strichart & Lazarus, 1986). The law provided handicapped students with rights, including the right to due process, nondiscriminatory assessment, confidential handling of personal records and information, and the opportunity for caregivers to examine all records pertaining to the evaluation, placement, and educational programming of their child. Furthermore, caregivers were given the right to challenge the contents of records and to obtain an independent evaluation of their child.
Public Law 94-142 was later re-authorized as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990 with additional provisions. Basically, PL-94-142 and IDEA aimed to level the playing field and mandated that every student with a disability be provided with an individualized educational plan (IEP) that allows them to participate fully in their education in the least restrictive environment possible (Sulkowski, Joyce, & Storch, 2012). This act was re-authorized in 2004 as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA; PL 108-446) and under the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act (McK-V Act; Pub. L. 100-77), which was incorporated under IDEIA, it provided additional protections to some highly at-risk or vulnerable student populations such as homeless students. In addition to providing other protections, the McK-V Act ensures the immediate enrollment of students who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence (Sulkowski & Joyce-Beaulieu, 2014; Sulkowski & Michael, 2014). Therefore, the act protects students who are homeless or seriously economically disenfranchised. To help address the needs of students who often are overlooked, Chapter 14
discusses helping highly vulnerable student populations such as homeless students.
As a general trend, U.S. schools have become increasingly more inclusive of students who are racially, ethnically, and economically diverse as well as supportive of students with classifiable disabilities. However, despite this progress, considerable room for improvement still exists to support all students. Currently, consistent with the school mental health movement, which began roughly in the 1990s, thousands of schools appear to be in the process of becoming more inclusive and supportive of the needs of another group of students—those who have mental health needs—who traditionally have been neglected (Flaherty, Weist, & Warner, 1996; Sulkowski et al., 2012). Therefore, as recent trends suggest, the evolving role for educators likely will involve supporting students’ mental health and emotional well-being.
School-based Mental Health
One out of every five students is suffering with a serious mental health problem according to estimates by the office of the U.S. Surgeon General (Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS], 2000). The prevalence of mental illness among children has increased (Perou et al., 2010) and almost half of adolescents ages 13 to 18 have had a mental disorder (Merikangas et al., 2010; see Chapter 3
for further discussion on the impact of mental illness). Moreover, from 2007 to 2010 there was an increase of 24 percent in inpatient mental health and substance abuse admissions according to the Health Care Cost Institute (2012).
Mental illness places a huge burden on U.S. students, schools, and society. As noted by Dr. Stephen Brock, the Past President of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), experiencing mental illness causes significant pain and impairs healthy functioning (2015). In a NASP Presidential Address, Brock argues forcefully that all stakeholders in schools should support efforts to provide access to school mental health services. Failure to do so can result in the loss of life. For example, research indicates that suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 15 to 19 and that than 9 out of every 10 completed suicides are related to some type of mental illness, most frequently depression (Erbacher, Singer, & Poland, 2015; Miller, 2011; Shaffer & Craft, 1999). Moreover, more youth have died by suicide than by cancer, heart disease, birth defects, pneumonia, influenza, cerebrovascular disease, pregnancy and childbirth complications, and chronic lung disease combined
(Brock, 2015; Hoyert & Xu, 2012; Kalafat & Lazarus, 2002). Because of the importance of this topic, Chapter 16
discusses suicide assessment, prevention, and intervention.
Student Access to Service
As previously noted, millions of students display mental health needs. Unfortunately, however, most of these students do not receive mental health services to address these needs (Farmer, Burns, Phillips, Angold, & Costello, 2003). In fact, according to the U.S. Public Health Service (2000), in any given year only 20 percent of children and adolescents with mental disorders receive mental health care. Yet, for students who do receive mental health support, over 60 percent of these individuals receive it in public school settings. Therefore, school is the entry point for the delivery of mental health services for a majority of our nation’s youth (Farmer et al., 2003). In light of this, in addition to their traditional goal of teaching academic skills, U.S. public schools have become key institutions that also support students’ mental health. Further, a great capacity exists for these institutions to expand the provision of school-based mental health services to support students who experience barriers to access treatment in clinical or community mental health centers—that is, the rest of the students who need mental health care—yet do not receive these supports (Sulkowski et al., 2012; Sulkowski, Wingfield, Jones, & Coulter, 2011).
Providing further support for the provision of school-based mental health support, Brock (2015) argues the following: (a) ...