First Person

First Person: A cough-syrup overdose isn’t a crime — except when schools rely on police in the wrong ways

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Joe Loong

I once watched a school react to an incident where a student had overdosed on multiple bottles of cough syrup.

After dealing with the initial emergency and ensuring the child went to the hospital, the school didn’t treat the incident as a mental health issue or suicide attempt. Instead, officials turned to their “go to” person for handling difficult student issues: the school’s police officer.

The officer’s, and thus the school’s, only response was to investigate what crime the child could be charged with, not what help he needed.

For the past decade, I have been studying how we police schools and punish students. I have found in my research that the presence of officers can change the school environment in subtle ways – from one that focuses on children’s social, emotional, and academic needs to one focusing on policing potential criminals.

In many of these schools, police officers are being asked to deal with a range of issues that are very different from traditional policing duties, such as being a mental health counselor for a traumatized child. My recent book, “The Real School Safety Problem,” and a growing body of other studies point to the fact that, indeed, schools ask police to do too much.

How did we get here?

Estimates suggest that the practice of placing police officers in schools became popular in the early 1990s, as society began to rethink policing and punishment. That resulted in more rigorous policing practices and an expansion of our prison system.

In 1999, following the Columbine school shooting, when two teens went on a shooting spree, policing grew further as federal funding increased for police officers in schools.

However, for over 20 years, school crime has been plummeting. Between 1993 and 2010, the number of students who reportedly became victims of a violent crime at school decreased by 82 percent. Importantly, research on causes of this decrease (which mirrors declines in juvenile crime outside of schools) has not reliably found any link between increased policing and decreased crime. Since most schools are now safe places, officers in them aren’t needed to respond to many crimes.

So they are being asked to do many other tasks.

There are no national data on what officers do while at schools. But studies in specific schools find that officers are being asked to deal with mental health problems, family crises, self-injurious behavior and manifestations of childhood trauma. They also mentor students and teach law-related courses.

That’s a lot. But in many cases, their training isn’t as comprehensive.

Every jurisdiction makes its own decision about what officers should do in schools, and the training that they should receive to work in schools. The National Association of School Resource Officers does offer a week-long basic training course. But students’ mental health and other problems are, not surprisingly, often beyond the skills gained from a week-long course.

Even if they are trained, police officers are not mental-health professionals — whose years of training and practice teach them how to calm youth down, assess mental health needs, and address the underlying causes of student misbehavior.

Police officers in schools do often serve as mentors and role models. For example, the officer I described above – who looked to charge a potentially suicidal student with a crime – had volunteered to work in a school because of his desire to help kids.

He took time to advise youth and was a positive influence in the lives of many. Often students would come to his office to ask for advice, and just “check in.” He would respond with care and compassion.

The cost of the daily presence of police, though, outweighs the benefit in the majority of schools. For example, the officer I describe above switched roles dramatically when he thought a crime might have been committed. Then he would act like any traditional officer focused only on law and order.

In those moments, he failed to address the underlying cause of the problem. By relying on him as the primary responder to student problems, the school replaced a focus on social issues and mental health with a focus on law enforcement.

The result is that children often do not receive the help they need, and officers are placed in a no-win position by being asked to respond to students’ needs as if they had the same training as a mental health professional.

The fact is, they do not — and we should be careful to remember that.

A version of this piece first appeared on The Conversation.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.