Op-Ed: Children's mental health must be considered in school safety talks

School safety issues are very complex, but we must find meaningful, systemic, and effective solutions to end gun violence and improve school safety. Safe and successful schools need thriving children who feel socially, emotionally, and physically safe and supported. As leaders and professionals, we must ensure that we are supporting the healthy social and emotional development of New Hampshire’s future citizens and leaders.

Social-emotional well-being is fundamental to overall health and an important contributor to a child’s success in school. Unfortunately, social and emotional disorders are common, impacting one in five New Hampshire children, many of whom do not receive the services and supports they need to get back on a healthy developmental trajectory.

Supporting young people and families who are experiencing behavioral health challenges is a central piece of keeping our schools safe. In New Hampshire, we all recognize the importance of keeping our young people safe and giving them what they need to thrive. Here are some steps that the Granite State can take to do so.

1. Listen to and encourage student voices

A commonsense solution to supporting our young people is to give them the opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas related to school safety. Throughout New Hampshire and the nation, young people have risen up to use their voices and unique perspective to enact change. We need to listen to those most closely involved and include them in any discussion we have about children’s behavioral health and school safety.

2. Support New Hampshire’s emerging System of Care to address children’s behavioral health

A system of care is an evidence-based behavioral health care approach that relies on a coordinated network of effective community-based services and supports with a broad array of individualized services to help children and youth to function better at home, in school, in the community, and throughout life. The system of care values are now imbedded in a state law requiring the state to develop and maintain an integrated and comprehensive service delivery system for children with behavioral health needs.

Cultivating, sustaining and funding an integrated, comprehensive system of care to address children’s behavioral health is a fundamental need to help our youth thrive. New Hampshire is in Year 3 of a multi-year plan to improve the infrastructure for such a system, and a lot of important work has been done thus far. Continuing to examine gaps in the children’s behavioral health system and discuss what changes must be implemented to effect change must be included in any conversation New Hampshire has about school safety.

3. Support evidence-based interventions in schools

We must ensure students do not become isolated or alienated from their school communities and that the needs of children and youth who struggle with emotional and behavioral challenges are identified and addressed early.

New Hampshire’s Health and Human Services and Education Departments are working to build multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) using positive behavior supports - a model which has demonstrated effectiveness in improving overall school climate, deepening student and teacher collaboration, and helping students who struggle with behavioral health challenges. While these interventions are not yet state-wide, several New Hampshire school districts are using MTSS to create a school-wide set of positive social expectations and teach students about respect, responsibility, and safety.

Connecting children and families with the services and supports they need in schools is a proven technique to address behavioral health concerns, which, unaddressed, could lead to violence in the most extreme cases. Continuing to support and grow these multi-tiered supports in schools will help New Hampshire’s children thrive and stay safe.

Lastly, our schools need strong protocols and written procedures for dealing with a crisis and the aftermath of a crisis, and for supporting students who have experienced trauma.

On behalf of the New Hampshire Children’s Behavioral Health Collaborative, the New Hampshire School Boards Association and the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, we encourage the Governor’s Commission on School Safety to take this New Hampshire-based framework into account as they discuss potential solutions to keeping our children safe.

Rebecca Whitley is policy coordinator for the Children’s Behavioral Health Collaborative. Barrett Christina is executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association. Carl M. Ladd is executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association.

Click here to read the full op-ed in Seacoast Online.