By SUSAN EPSTEIN, GOLETA SCHOOL BOARD MEMBER
Because I’m a long-time school board member, many people are asking me what we can do locally to prevent school shootings.
Our elementary school district has taken a multi-faceted approach to keeping our schools safe, with a focus on catching problems early. A key practice is investing in young children’s wellness, mental health, and academic success.
Since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, 150,000 students attending at least 170 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus, according to the Washington Post.
Children across the country increasingly report that they don’t feel safe at school. These tragedies are unique to our country and so is our very limited gun control. Common-sense gun regulations are clearly needed.
One year ago President Trump reversed an Obama executive order that required background checks before gun purchases to include restrictions for certain mental illnesses. Reversing this order is going in the wrong direction.
Our elementary school district values the safety and emotional health of our 4,000 children so much that we put it in our mission statement. We made a commitment to ensure every child has at least one adult they trust and can confide in. We’ve focused on building these meaningful relationships.
We’ve reduced class sizes so that students get more attention. Five years ago, we had seven school psychologists for the whole district. Now we have ten psychologists and a full-time social worker. We’ve invested in being proactive and we’ve staffed proactively. If young children heal from small traumas, they are less likely to act out later. Preventing problems before they occur saves money long term, and most importantly, it prevents major trauma. We believe it’s best to catch problems early. We don’t wait for crises.
We also reviewed social-emotional curriculum and chose a program called Second Step that we use in every grade in every school. Academic research offers solid evidence that Second Step reduces bullying and other problems. We’ve not only trained our principals and teachers in this curriculum and its methods, but our psychologists also reinforce the principles, and we’re now beginning to train all of our yard duty personnel so that all adults and kids have the same language to talk about conflict resolution. When everyone works together and everyone shares in the goal, we can achieve remarkable things.
We’ve taught our children the motto, “If you see something, say something.” And we see that our curriculum and relationships-based approach built on trust is working. Children have been reporting to adults situations that concern them, and that allows us to guide the students through conflict resolution.
We’ve also been working collaboratively with the District Attorney’s office on cyber bullying. Together we created workshops for fifth and sixth graders. We’ve also offered two workshops for parents. And we will soon present workshops to parents on social media safety.
With all the trauma that our community has faced in recent years — between the tragedy in Isla Vista, the two murders of Foothill School families, the massive wildfires, news of frequent school shootings around the country, and now the debris flow disaster — our district has spent time in recent years comforting children and families. Our psychologists are trained in Psychological First Aid, which is the first step for treating trauma. We brought in a national trainer after the Foothill School boys were killed. As mentioned, we have a full-time psychologist at every site, 8 MFT interns, and a full-time social worker. Together these professionals work with our principals and teachers to intervene with children and families when issues are first arising.
Ensuring children’s physical and emotional wellness enhances their academic performance. Studies show a strong correlation between academic success and readiness to learn, including mental and physical wellness. Our academic test scores for all subgroups have outpaced State averages. Our children are thriving, healthy, and strong learners.
Beyond emotional wellness, we’ve installed more physical barriers on all our campuses, including specialized locks, cameras, and in some cases large window blinds to block an intruder’s view into classrooms.
Unfortunately, we have frequent lockdown drills. As a parent volunteer in a kindergarten class in 2004, I participated in my first lockdown drill. It was a very organized event for which adults had prepared extensively. There were adults simulating responding to horrible acts that could be happening across the campus. I saw terrified expressions on some of the faces of the four- and five-year olds whom I was accompanying. It is disturbing that these drills are necessary and that they are occurring regularly in schools all across the country. Currently, our district is reviewing additional training for all staff on Active Shooter and other emergency response strategies.
President Trump is proposing that we now arm our teachers in response to school shootings. Educators overwhelmingly find this proposal outrageous and want real solutions like common-sense regulations.
I’ve been inspired by the Parkland High student leaders and other youth across the country who are advocating for common-sense gun regulations. Join the movement on March 24 in De La Guerra Plaza at the March for Our Lives being organized by local students as part of the national March for Our Lives.
Santa Barbara Coalition Against Gun Violence
Cottage Health – Resources for families on coping with tragedy and disaster
Published in The Mesa Paper