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Experts: Keep Students in Focus When Addressing Safety, Mental Health Issues

Schools are increasingly invested in not just their student’s academic scores, but their overall mental health. New resources, strategies, and organizations are emerging to assist these schools in their mission to better the lives of the community around them.

Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the issue in perspective. In some of the agency’s nationwide surveys, many respondents reported that they had experienced a childhood trauma — what the CDC refers to as a “Adverse Childhood Experience,” said Phyllis Holditch Niolon, director of the CDC’s Division of Violence Prevention.

On Thursday at the AASA’s National Conference on Education, Niolon was one of the national experts who advised school district superintendents on resources and considerations for improving student mental health and school safety.

Niolon explained that many people have suffered one more adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse, physical and emotional neglect, and homelessness. Other examples of trauma tracked by the CDC include childhood exposure to violence or the death of a family member.

Children at a higher risk for these traumatic experiences include minorities and children living in poor and violent neighborhoods. Niolon said that the studies indicate children who have had an adverse childhood experience likely will experience others.

Niolon said these adverse experiences are preventable. Successful prevention could lower rates of depression, or health issues like heart disease and obesity. It could also help improve the health and socio-economic status of the nation, and give students a better future.

Niolon suggested strategies to help children and families cope with trauma and to prevent additional trauma. She said communities can strengthen economic support and educational opportunities for families by providing high quality child care and family friendly work policies, as well as promoting social norms that encourage acceptance, healthy relationships and healthy lifestyles.

Researchers like Thomas Reischl, a scientist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and a representative of the National Center for School Safety, have developed other strategies to help schools and their communities address both school safety and mental health issues.

Reischl told the crowd that in addition to working with law enforcement, schools and communities should consider collaborating with an often-overlooked group−students.

“Too often, we think of students as the problem,” Reischl said. “What happens when we think of students as part of the solution?”

(Amanda Zhang is a junior at Canyon Crest Academy and an intern with the AASA’s Conference Daily Online.)

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