St. Louis, Missouri -- Feeling safe in school was a problem in Missouri even before the pandemic added the unprecedented element of fear and anxiety of being exposed to a potentially deadly virus.
As schools moved to remote learning, many of the daily concerns about physical safety in schools-- from bullying to school shooters-- decreased. Yet mental health concerns, including feeling safe, comfortable and supported in the school environment, remained.
That, and the return to in-person classes in schools across the country this fall, are why a group of Missouri high school students, members of the youth advisory board at St. Louis’s Alive and Well Communities nonprofit, is working to improve school safety across the state. The work kicked off at an April “Community State of Young People” event hosted by the nonprofit, which is focused on reducing the impact of toxic stress in the St. Louis area and America’s Promise Alliance, a national network of groups designed to improve conditions for young people.
“So many times we have conversations around school safety, however the actual students are not at the table for these conversations,” said facilitator Ramona Coleman, manager of youth advocacy and activation at Alive and Well Communities.
Students echoed that sentiment: “Students feel like they don’t feel respected and they don’t feel like they are able to talk to people comfortably,” said Jesteena Chuc, a junior at Hazelwood Central High School, who said that students often feel they are at the bottom of the hierarchy in school and are not allowed to openly express how they’re feeling.
Availability of trained mental health professionals in Missouri schools
The ratio of school psychologists to students in Missouri schools is significantly below the national average, based on data gathered from 207 school districts by the Missouri Association of School Psychologists, with one school psychologist per 4,204 students. The national ratio is 1 to 1,381.
Missouri fares slightly better than the national average in the availability of school counselors, with one school counselor for every 336 Missouri schoolchildren, according to the American School Counselors Association. The national average is one per 424 students. But the recommended ratio, according to that association, is 1 per 250 students.
“We need to hire more [trained] therapists and others like that,” said Chuc, and to create support groups for people with similar struggles and issues. Chuc said that her school is probably ahead of others in that they have a certified therapist on staff in addition to counselors.
School discipline and race
Black students have a different experience when it comes to school safety than white students, in Missouri and across the nation.
Black students and students of color are disproportionately punished compared to their white peers, according to a report by ACLU Missouri.
That report showed Black students in Missouri are almost five times more likely to be suspended than white students, and Black students with disabilities are three times more likely to be suspended than white students with disabilities.
Similarly, the data show Black girls are six times more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than white female students in the state, and Black boys are four times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than white boys.
During the 2015-2016 school year, Black students in Missouri were 16 percent of the school population, but received almost half-- 46 percent-- of suspensions statewide.
Missouri is one of more than a dozen other American states with legal corporal punishment, and the racial disparities in the delivery of this type of punishment are just as stark: Black students in Missouri are more than three times as likely to be hit by an educator in school as their white counterparts, according to data from the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Feeling safe in school
Most American high school students feel safe attending school and in traveling to and from school, according to a 2019 report by the ACT Center for Equity in Learning. Still, a quarter of students in that report said that their concerns about school safety negatively affect their ability to learn.
As for what makes students feel safer-- from bullying, harassment, microaggressions, and other dangers-- most in that survey, and in the group of Missouri high school students, said better access to mental health services would make a big difference.
In that and other studies, feelings of safety in school also varied by race and gender, with white and male students reporting the highest feelings of safety and female, Black and Hispanic students reporting lower feelings of safety.
A sense of safety also varied based on the size of the school, with more students in larger schools feeling unsafe, despite reporting a higher number of school security staff, the ACT report said.
More than half of American high school students say they fear a school shooting could happen in their school, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center conducted in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in February of 2018.
Nearly 90 percent of students in the Pew survey said improving mental health screening and treatment would be somewhat or very effective in deterring school shootings, while only 47 percent felt the same way about arming teachers and other school officials.
The Urban Health Media Project’s Sarah Gandluri is a high school sophomore in Olney, Maryland. Brie Zeltner, a former (Cleveland) Plain Dealer health reporter, is UHMP’s director of content and programs.