Ready to Face These School Security and Safety Concerns When Students Return?
As the date to reopen schools gets closer, be sure your campus can address the risks and threats of violence created or exacerbated by the coronavirus shutdown.
As we begin to assess what damage the COVID-19 virus has wrought on our country, we see it extends beyond the tragic deaths of so many people and includes major damage to our economy, employment and the mental health of adults and children alike.
The national shutdown that came with the outbreak is unprecedented and something that we could not have been prepared for. The resulting stress this has caused is becoming more evident everyday as we get closer to reopening our businesses and schools.
Examples of rising negative expressions due to stress can be found in public commentary on the potential for reopening of our society that can be seen in news broadcasts, newspaper articles, radio and TV shows and on social media. A majority of these conversations paint a clear picture that we are unsure of how to proceed as a people.
Some people want to move faster and restart our society to stave off the destruction of our economy and the horrors that a financial collapse will bring, while others are afraid that moving too quickly will result in a second wave of illness and death. The two sides are vehemently opposed, and contentious and heated arguments are erupting all over. These examples reveal the stress that is boiling just below the surface as well as the effects stress is having on the mental state of many people.
As the date to reopen our schools and businesses gets closer, be that in the late spring, summer or in the fall, the boiling background noise will most certainly heat up further, and the potential for violence increases. Will the stress and trauma of the COVID-19 crisis and lockdown lead to increased violence in our schools when classes resume?
There is no absolute answer here. It could go either way. There could be more violence brought on by the trauma and stress we have all felt, or people may be so happy to get back out and reconnect that they rejoice and do not express themselves in violent ways.
I certainly am hoping for the latter scenario, but as a practitioner of safety and security, I must consider the former potential scenario. I must understand the possibilities, creating some kind of an outline to help myself and others recognize the warning signs of danger so we can react before violence erupts.
To begin the research on this question, I sought the insight and help of Meagan Longo, a certified school psychologist who has been practicing since 1996. I also reached out to two dedicated and professional school superintendents for their input: John Spalthoff who leads the Spring Lake Heights School District in New Jersey and Bernadette Burns who leads the West Islip School District in New York.
Address These Potential Mental Health Issues in Students
Here is a list of concerns that must be addressed to get a clear picture of what the return to school might look like and what school administrators should consider as they prepare themselves and their staffs.
Pangaro: Will the anxiety of the COVID-19 shut down cause students and staff to be more agitated/on edge and potentially violent when they return to class and work? If so, Why?
Longo: There is no one absolute profile of a student or staff member who has the potential to be violent, but there are known risk factors. Right now, the world is in a state of constant unknowns. Our daily lives and routines are incredibly impacted and disrupted. The uncertainty of the future can lead to increased feelings of fear. Our lack of control over the situation can lead to feelings of helplessness. Being forced to be physically apart from others can increase our sense of isolation. Even if a student or staff member is not personally impacted by COVID19, the media is constantly showing the loss of others. It leads to a collective sense of grief. Students and staff members are feeling a sense of loss. A loss over daily routines, connections to friends, missing extended family. Financial stressors are weighing heavily on people’s minds. Everyone will respond to the impact of the pandemic differently. Some will have a more intense reaction. Being isolated can heighten and exacerbate these feelings.
Due to the ongoing nature of the pandemic, there is no clearly defined end in sight. Being exposed to high levels of stress over great periods of time can lead to higher risk for mental illness. Adolescence is the typical onset for mental health disorders. The shelter in place limits people’s access to movement and freedom and can increase feelings of boredom. Boredom in teens can lead to an increase of risky, impulsive or self-destructive behaviors. Acting out behaviors may be an attempt to express their anger at the situation.
Pangaro: What about the students who have a difficult home life and have been stuck there since the shut down? Can that stress lead to potential violence once school begins?
Longo: Our most at-risk students who have the potential to be emotionally impacted by the shelter in place are those who see the school system as their refuge from a dysfunctional home life. The New York Times reported, “movement restrictions to stop the spread of the corona virus may make violence in the home more frequent, more severe and more dangerous.” There is an increased opportunity for abuse while at the same time shelter-in-place orders can limit access to support networks, such as schools.
For many students, schools are their safe place where they interact each day with caring adults who support them. For families that already have financial stressors, adding in the possibility of unemployment, limited access to food, housing insecurity or forced relocation can have a negative impact on students’ mental wellbeing. We know that reports of domestic abuse are up. Reports of child abuse are up. Calls to suicide hotlines have increased. There is an increased risk for substance abuse, which can further impair problem solving. Students who are exposed to trauma within the home are at higher risk for declines in mental health. Children who witness violence within their families, already have a mental health diagnosis and who have a limited support network are most at risk for “acting out” their emotions.
Pangaro: How can the isolation of the shutdown affect those prone to violence already, and how can it affect those with potential latent tendencies to violence?
Longo: The following was taken directly from NASP School Safety and Crisis Response Committee. (2020). Behavior Threat Assessment and Management in the Virtual Environment. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists:
- During extended school closures, schools may see an increase in student mental health concerns (e.g., anxiety, depression, substance abuse). This may include an increase in existing symptomology or the development of new concerns. Identifying and managing mental health concerns can reduce harm to self and others among individuals of concern.
- Student, family, and community stressors are very likely to increase in frequency, duration, and intensity during times of extended school closure. Examples include: increased isolation, increased financial stress, reduced supervision, increased connection to unsafe individuals in the home (e.g., domestic abuse), decreased involvement with prosocial school staff members/peers, increased engagement with unsafe or violence-promoting internet chat rooms/groups, increased perceptions of uncertainty (e.g., unknown time frame for when COVID-19 may end), and increased feelings of resentment due to societal and educational inequities. All of these may increase individual perceptions of aloneness and potentially contribute to mental health challenges.
- The TOADS acronym (time, opportunity, ability, desire, and stimulus) can help determine imminence and intent of a threat. With increased isolation, each of the TOADS components is likely to be more prominent (e.g., more time to ruminate, increased stressors, less supervision).
Pangaro: Can the anxiety of parents and guardians be transferred to students at home and if so, what can that elicit in the student?
Longo: It is very common to experience mental or emotional strain and tension during this uncertain time. It is especially challenging for people who already grapple anxiety. When a parent is undergoing recurring stress, it can become their only focus to the point of losing sight of everything else. Children are very in tune with their parents’ emotions, and they can pick up on their parents’ anxiety level. If a parent is high strung, jittery, engaging in excessive worry and verbalizing their fears aloud; the child can take on these fears and concerns as their own. Anxiety can be contagious. If parents are not dealing with their anxiety in a productive manner (by engaging in unhealthy activities, such as increased substance abuse, verbal abuse, domestic abuse, child abuse, self-harm) this further exacerbates the situation. Observing their parents’ anxiety and their parents’ inability to effectively manage their anxiety can cause children to feel sad, worried, frustrated or even angry. This can lead to children “acting out” their emotions.
Pangaro: Will the tolerance level of students be greater or less when exposed to negative stimulus in school after experiencing the shut down?
Longo: Each student is going to respond to the shutdown in their unique way. However, if the student experienced the shutdown in a threatening manner, then the likelihood of the student experiencing trauma from the event increases. If a student has a particularly adverse or traumatic reaction to the shut down and then returns to school and is exposed to another “traumatizing” event, it can make them more susceptible to experiencing this new event as traumatic as well. If the student also has a pre-existing mental health issue or a disability, their response may be more pronounced. Past exposure to trauma can increase risk for experiencing future events as a traumatic event.
Pangaro: Does the media coverage, the day-to-day negativity and fearful reporting affect people and how?
Longo: “The anxiety associated with the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of the pandemic makes us crave information as a means of making sense of what is going on and regain control. However, watching media coverage for long periods of time may actually increase anxiety, as this can keep our response systems activated” (National Association of School Psychologists (2020). Coping with the COVID-19 crisis: The importance of care for the caregivers: Tips for administrators and crisis teams). A prolonged, heightened sense of alertness over time can lead to chronic stress. It can lead to increased worry or anxiety, feelings of anger, feelings of sadness, loss of interest in activities and hopelessness. “Recurring feelings of fear or anxiety over one’s safety can impact sleep, concentration, and daily behavior” (Garfin, D. R., Silver, R. C., & Holman, E. A. (2020). The novel coronavirus (COVID-2019) outbreak: Amplification of public health consequences by media exposure. Health Psychology).
Pangaro: What are schools and colleges going to do to prepare for the return of students? What type of staff training should they offer? What about psychological counseling at the schools in August and home visits by school officials and counselors? Should campuses survey students and parents to gauge the temperature of the potential return?
Longo: The school-based crisis team should play an essential role in preparing for the return to school. This crisis team can provide training to staff, students and families on school violence risk factors and warning signs. It can help assess which staff members have been directly impacted by COVID 19 and ensure those identified are receiving the additional mental health support they may need. Students that were pre-identified as being at risk for violence, students/staff who have known preexisting mental illness and/or limited coping mechanisms can be identified and supported as needed. A positive school climate should be promoted, and judgment-free reporting of student or staff mental health concerns should be encouraged. Students who were receiving teletherapy during the campus closures should have opportunities to reconnect with support staff during the school day as needed. Schools should monitor closely for truancy and possible school avoidance upon campuses reopening. Staff should actively work on reestablishing connections with all of their students.
In addition, NASP has a handout with some great tips on how to best support staff who may be experiencing chronic stress due to COVID-19. National Association of School Psychologists (2020). Coping with the COVID-19 crisis: The importance of care for the caregivers: Tips for administrators and crisis teams.
Pangaro: Can the COVID-19 shut down and the trauma of the pandemic cause students who didn’t pose a threat in the past to become a concern after it is over and school reopens?
Longo: It can pose a potential threat. As each student will respond to the shut down in their own way, it will be essential for schools and parents to be on the lookout for students demonstrating a severe reaction to the shut down and to ensure these students are receiving support either through the school system or referred for outside assistance. Some students may be considered more at risk depending upon individual factors and experience factors. For example, if they already have an identified mental health issue, if there are known family stressors, if they were directly impacted by the pandemic, if they have a limited support network. There are warning signs staff need to look at to gauge students’ mental health upon the return to school.
Readers are encouraged to review: NASP School Safety and Crisis Response Committee. (2015). Supporting Students Experiencing Childhood Trauma – Tips for Parents and Educators. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
Pangaro: What effects can the shut down and trauma of the pandemic bring out in students who were a potential threat to school security before the COVID-19 shut down?
Longo: Students who were already previously identified as a possible threat to school security should be monitored very carefully during the shutdown and upon the return to school. During the shutdown it is essential that these students continue to have quality interactions with school staff in order to promote connections and [address] feelings of isolation. Any support services being provided prior to the shutdown should continue during the shutdown. Staff need to monitor for any concerning behaviors exhibited during the shutdown, including threats of self-harm and threats of violence. Parents should be aware of how to safely report their concerns over their child’s ability to cope with the shutdown.
Pangaro: What are the things every school district should consider when preparing for the return of students after this crisis as it relates to school security and potential violence?
- Schools need to maintain and implement their crisis plans and threat assessment procedures. Most students who pose a threat will indicate their intention in some way.
- All staff should be trained on identifying the risk factors and warning signs that can increase the likelihood of school violence. No one factor predicts a higher risk; however, a combination of risk factors may increase the risk.
- Students should be provided an overview on identifying a peer who may be at risk for violence or self-harm, and students should understand how they can report their concerns.
- Parents should have training to recognize the warning signs and understand how they can report their concerns to the school.
- Schools need to continue to foster a positive school climate and social-emotional learning to increase connectedness and reduce feelings of isolation among students. Prevention policies need to be up and running.
- Schools need to share resources to students, staff and families on how to address stress.
- Schools should provide resources for students, staff and families on who they can contact if they need help.
Any student who could be considered at risk should undergo a risk assessment. Time should be taken to identify both students or staff members who were directly impacted by the pandemic or who are exhibiting extreme stress reactions to the pandemic. Some people, however, may have risk factors for more intense reactions. Parents and caregivers should contact a professional if children exhibit significant changes in behavior.
Superintendents Bernadette Burns and John Spalthoff’s Perspectives
School superintendents have a unique responsibility, and the way they respond to this crisis and the return to school will have a great impact on the success of their district, staff and students. I asked Superintendent Burns and Superintendent Spalthoff what they thought schools and colleges could do to prepare for the return:
Superintendent Burns: Districts are utilizing every resource in their power to reach out to all students, and especially those who are mentally, socially and emotionally fragile. We are in the process of assessing what we need to do in all areas to ensure the physical and mental health and safety of students and staff. Activities will vary by district and by available resources, and once we have an idea of the timeline for return, we will have a better idea of how to proceed, Our most vulnerable students are at particular risk, and it is critical that districts are provided the resources they need to support all students.
Superintendent Spalthoff: We have been doing weekly “temperature” checks of our students through a Google form that the guidance counselor has them complete. We have all been laser focused on the mental health aspect of this. I insisted as a school that we stick with the Spring Break since everyone needs to recharge and if we get back into the school this year, our focus will be on the students and reacclimating them. We frankly need to do more on getting the feeling from the staff as to where they are at during this time with their own mental health.
Security Plans, Practices and Protocols for When Students Return
This time of shutdown and before the student’s return is a great time to reassess all of your school security components: policies, practices, training and equipment. The experts I’ve interviewed above have voiced some ways to address the concerns I raised here. Additionally, these specific factors should be considered and reviewed as they relate to your staff and facilities:
- Get a thorough and comprehensive threat, vulnerability and risk assessment (TVRA) conducted on your school buildings so you understand where your security gaps are or may have developed in your facilities, staff training or other security equipment like cameras, radios, intercoms and classroom lockdown items.
- Train a student threat assessment team in your school or district to respond to any and all potential or real threats posed by students, staff or intruders who may have been negatively affected by the COVID-19 shutdown.
- Train your staff in the techniques of verbal de-escalation so they can respond appropriately to anyone in crisis to prevent violence from erupting.
- Review your emergency plans and policies and update them if needed.
- Conduct drills of value so your staff and students can respond quickly to any violence that does take place.
- Review all of your security equipment, and upgrade where you can.
- Review your plans to address drug and alcohol use, as well as suicide to keep everyone healthy and safe.
Use These Tips to Make Coming Back to School Easier on Everyone
We know there is no specific profile of an active shooter or person who commits some other form of violence – be they an adult or school student — but there are some traits we can identify. One of the main traits is a sense of isolation and not belonging to the school community. This is a consistent trait found among many school and workplace assailants. They don’t feel connected to the school or those around them. This is a clue we need to look for as the students begin to return. We have all been isolated and under extraordinary stress.
Use these tips and ideas in your staff meetings to get everyone on board as the we all prepare for life after COVID-19 and the return to school. No child should ever be afraid to go to school, and no parent should fear their child won’t return home.
Joseph Pangaro is a former police lieutenant with 27 years of experience. He is also the former director of school security for a large district in New Jersey. He is currently the CEO and chief security officer for True Security Design, a company that provides safety and security assessments and staff training for schools, businesses, houses of worship and summer camps across the United States.