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Physical security, interpersonal relationships, and mental health care: all keys in addressing school violence

Kentucky Center for School Safety

Word of this week’s heart-breaking violence carried out against young school children in Texas is carrying an impact across the country. That is also the case in Kentucky. The organization created in 1998 to consider issues like this is the Kentucky Center for School Safety.

Jon Akers had high school administrative experience, he was principal at Lexington’s Dunbar, before he made a move to a different administrative role. He took over the reins of the Kentucky Center on School Safety early in its history.

Akers pointed out that, overall, schools are very safe. He said school shootings like that in Uvalde Texas comprise one-tenth of one percent of all shootings.

“When a shooting occurs at a home, you may hear about it locally, but you won’t hear about it nationally, but when you have a tragedy like that that happened down in Texas, that catches the world’s attention. And it should,” said Akers.

Realizing it’s very difficult to assess the mindset of an armed assailant, Akers said a school environment may be singled out sadly because of the large number of available targets.

Amy Riley is a crisis management specialist and a school counselor in Mercer County. She said reports of the shooter in Texas include references to being socially isolated with few strong relationships inside or outside the school. Riley said it’s those kids that unfortunately can “blend in” and fly under the radar.

An NPR report this week included a reference to high school students in the Texas community saying the shooter was bullied over a speech impediment. Riley noted instruction about the harmful effects of bullying is given, but she believes counseling on how to respond to bullying may fall short. Bullying, to some degree, has been around for a long time.

“A skill that I don’t think was taught that we really try to focus on now is resiliency and learning how to bounce back and how to handle things appropriately. Because of what we have and I see it here in my school every day, we have kids who are absolutely devastated when something negative happens in their life. They don’t have the social skills to be able to handle that,” said Riley.

There are a variety of influences each day for school children, both person to person and online. Riley said her young students make it clear they participate in unsupervised screen time.

“I work with third-fourth and fifth graders. I’ve had some very candid conversations about the things that they have accessed online and it is scary. It is terrifying. And almost all of them will tell me, my parents don’t know about this. They don’t want their parents to know,” said Riley.

Jon Akers said parental responsibility is critical. He noted people in his arena are looking for partnerships with community members, with families, and mentoring groups to help raise the children.

Working to ensure the safety of children in school includes hardening security within the facility. Akers added the aim is total commitment.

“Compliance you’re just ticking it off. Commitment is ‘hey, I’m always going to lock my classroom door. I’m always going to be willing to do the drills. I’m always going to be part of a threat assessment team. We’re always going to be a part of that. That’s part of our fiber now,” said Akers.

More attention is being given to mental health issues among young people. Tena Robbins, like Riley, serves on the Kentucky Center for School Safety Board. Robbins is with the State Department for Behavioral Health-Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities. She said there is a mental health crisis. Robbins said a joint letter from federal agencies this week amounted to a call to action. And she noted more funding for mental health professionals is needed.

“I mean I hate to boil something down to money, but in some cases, it is about the money to be able to enable people to pay a salary that will keep a competent workforce in place,” said Robbins.

Akers asked if the funding was in place, would there be enough trained people to fill the roles? He said there’s a need to work with universities on ways to boost the number of graduates in counseling areas.

Then there are the intangibles that help shape a positive environment. Robbins says instilling and re-instituting more empathy could be a difference-maker.

“And I believe it can be taught. I believe it can be taught and role modeled. I just, I feel like we’ve lost that as a society. And so I just keep going back to the whole notion of empathy,” said Robbins.

Classes are letting out for the summer across Kentucky. So the opportunities to create positive relationships in school may be on a hiatus. But, Robbins credited Akers with this theme, one caring adult can make a difference.

Here is the entire zoom conversation with Jon Akers, Amy Riley, and Tena Robbins:


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