First Safe and Healthy Schools Talk Focuses on Mental Health

By Jim Sheehan

Although school shootings are statistically infrequent events, the instances occupy much of our nation’s discourse on school safety. Any discussion of safe and healthy schools is unlikely to avoid the topic, at least as a point of reference.

On September 18, that topic served as a valuable point of departure as the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools presented its first public event: “Safe and Healthy Schools: Navigating the Landscape of Mental Health.”

Moderated by School of Education Dean Christopher C. Morphew in the school’s Great Hall, the lively discussion began with presentations by two renowned experts with widely differing perspectives but much common ground: Kristen Mahoney, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, and Holly C. Wilcox, associate professor in the Bloomberg School of Public Health and a newly appointed joint faculty member in the School of Education.

Mahoney represents one of DOJ’s three grant-making units, with responsibility for awarding $70 million in funding under the Student, Teachers, and Officers Preventing (STOP) School Violence Act, which supports the creation of school safety training and mental health programs for school personnel and students. While acknowledging a range of issues involved in safe and healthy schools, she pointed out that most safety-related investments by schools since 1999 have been directed toward controlled facility access, video surveillance, and other security-oriented measures, influenced in large part by concerns about school shootings, according to recent Bureau of Justice Statistics data.

Citing evidence from the January 2019 report of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, Mahoney identified some “big-ticket items” that inform her bureau’s programming in support of safe and healthy schools. Of 46 attackers involved in school shootings in the past 20 years, she says, 43 were characterized as “insiders”—current or former students. She also noted that most attacks ended in less than four minutes—and were stopped through the intervention of school personnel rather than law enforcement officers.

For Mahoney, this insider connection speaks to a need for effective, internal “threat assessment.” She said that although it involves a complex series of guidelines for school staff, teachers, and administrators to navigate as they track student behaviors, threat assessment can be effective in identifying students at risk of violent behaviors.

For Wilcox, a psychiatric epidemiologist and affiliated faculty member of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, preventing school violence is inseparable from addressing the looming mental health crisis among our nation’s youth.

She began with a sobering statistic on the nation’s youngest generation: “In a typical classroom of 25 students, five will experience a mental health problem in a given school year.” She also noted that suicide rates have risen broadly across the U.S. since 1999—alarmingly so among middle school–aged children.

An expert in adolescent mental health and suicide prevention, Wilcox described much of the suicide prevention programming in schools as historically being directed at training adult staff as “gatekeepers.” Even the most popular of these programs have not resulted in fewer suicide attempts or substantially better identification of suicidal youth. Few suicidal youths seek out an adult, and many school staff not trained as mental health professionals are not comfortable directly asking students about their mental health.

“Rather than training the adults, I want to train the students,” says Wilcox. “Because students who are struggling will often go to other students.” The principal investigator of a large, randomized, federally funded trial of a universal depression education program delivered in high schools, Wilcox advocates “a layered, developmentally timed approach.” She gave three examples of comparatively affordable programs in different age groups that could be embedded in existing health curricula, together spanning elementary, middle, and high school.

After presentations from Mahoney and Wilcox, questions from the audience tightened the focus of the discussion on the practical implementation of mental health programming. Wilcox stressed the importance of having program “champions”—leaders whose commitment can make the difference between an effective, widely adopted program and one that flounders.

Mahoney had a different take: help districts develop “capacity.” “Our model also funds national training and technical assistance providers,” she says. “These are groups of subject matter experts [who] can parachute into the field to ensure that grantees are implementing with fidelity.” She also advertised that her bureau’s grants process represents an opportunity not only as a source of project funding but also as a professional credential. Federal STOP grants are peer-reviewed, and the program welcomes qualified experts to serve as peer reviewers.

Launched in May 2019, the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools brings together faculty from across the university system to apply their expertise around evidence-based practices, programs, tools, and policies integral in creating and maintaining safe and healthy school environments. In its first year, the center is hosting a series of five public lectures featuring national experts in the field, beginning October 21 with Jonathan Links, the university’s vice provost and chief risk and compliance officer, presenting SCHOOLWELL: Creating a Safe and Healthy Schools Framework.