We Need Fewer School Police Officers and More Trauma Interventionalists
I have written at some length on the need to reopen schools with an eye to mental wellness (in addition to not in lieu of physical safety). This new linked piece focuses on the need to shift from all school police officers (whose role is school safety and rule enforcement in most instances) to trauma trained intervenors who can de-escalate situations involving the many students who will be dysregulated when they return to school. One of the main symptoms of trauma is dysregulation and we need to be prepared for it.
There are many approaches for getting schools ready for the the students they will have in real time — students who have been living with the Pandemic and other traumas over the past 18 months. Here is a link to the full article and then some key excerpts.
Here is the takeaway: this is a doable approach that can be implemented NOW. As in now. And we need to act, not just ponder. As valuable as school police are for certain situations, the needs of today and tomorrow relate to this reality: mental wellness matters and student mental wellbeing is challenged. The data support this sad truth. So, time to respond meaningfully, wisely and contemporaneously.
It is high time to think about the kinds of issues students and families will bring into school settings now and which professionals are best suited to address the likely scenarios. To that end, I want to focus on the impact of the Pandemic on students, their parents/guardians and educators alike. And, when we take a focused look at what our school communities are likely to experience in the now, we need to adjust how we navigate the multiple problems that will likely occur in most schools across the nation. In other words, “policing” can change with the times.
As a precursor to exploring new options, consider how many people are angry right now. It is evidenced in restaurants. It is evidenced in how we drive and respond to other drivers. It is apparent in what has occurred on airline flights. It is evident in how we treat each other — from those wearing to those not wearing masks, from those vaccinated to those unvaccinated. I just ordered a mask that says: “Vaccinated but cautious.” I had other choices including masks that said: “Vaccinated and I don’t trust you.” Can you hear a wee yeek as the message on our masks (not just the masks themselves) can be escalating, not deescalating, friction?
Anger is bubbling over, particularly with the new lack of certainty caused by the Delta variant at a time when we thought (expected) we were seeing light at the end of the tunnel and a return to some semblance of life as we knew it (recognizing there is not going back). Disappointment is surging. So is frustration and Zoom fatigue.
Individuals in uniforms and carrying weapons of some sort are not the ideal intervenors in the context of trauma. The uniform and weapons themselves can trigger trauma in some students, particularly those of color. Individuals who primary job is to keep order and physical safety have different approaches to problem solving; they do not focus on the psychological interventions that do NOT involve detention or punishment or stern speech. Yet, the latter are quality methods for problem solving situations generated by trauma.
Now, to be sure not all school police officers are wearing uniforms and some may be ideal at differentiating between students acting out because they are “intending bad” and students who are acting out because of trauma and are exhibiting unintentional behavior. But, were I a betting person, we would do better in our schools if we used trained trauma intervenors come Fall 2021.
Think about this term: trained trauma intervenors. It is labeling a skillset not a job. So, there are many within a school community who, if trained and allowed, could perform this function: teachers, school nurses, school counselors, coaches and yes, even some school police officers.
But the key to being a “trained trauma intervenor” is that they need to be present full time, walking the halls, visiting lunchrooms, sitting in student areas, getting known as a resource. These individuals need to message, through their language, clothing and demeanor that they are approachable and open and non-judgmental. And, when they do see things in the hallways, they need to be calm presences, working hard to unravel what is happening rather than working to “break up a fight.”
The intervenors need this mindset: we are here to help; we are here to hear; we are here to provide ways to process what is happening to so many in this Pandemic era. We are not rule enforcers; we are students advocates to enable progress forward.
The intervenors need tools to diffuse anger; they need tools to help students understand what is happening; they need a quiet place to meet with students where they can work to help them reregulate. They need to be literally omnipresent. Students need to feel they can find them easily and come to them. They need to be accessible via email and text and in person. They are, in a sense, the hands-on people institutions need to help everyone become more stable. They are on duty 24/7.
This isn’t and hasn’t been the role of school police officers. Sure, with training and a changed perspective, some of them could do this work extremely well.
Our students of all ages and stages need their educational institutions to be safe places where they can learn or relearn the skills to engage with others, work with others, understand rules and exhibit kindness and support for those who are struggling. That’s our job as educators, and trained trauma intervenors can be remarkable facilitators of this effort.
We send disaster relief teams to disaster sites. Now we can send trained trauma intervenors to schools. Let’s do more than write and talk about it. Let’s do it. Now. Time is a wasting.