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Identifying and treating trauma among largest gaps in school safety, commission says

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Members of the state School Safety Advisory Commission discussed gaps in school safety practices on Tuesday, among them being a lack of standardized methods of identifying and addressing students with trauma.

Its first meeting in years, the commission met at the State House and consists of lawmakers, members of law enforcement, and other experts in mental health and safety.

Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, the chair of the committee, asked members if there were any gaps in school safety they’ve identified that could potentially be addressed during the next legislative session. Kim Boswell, commissioner for the Alabama Mental Health Department, was quick to point to the lack of a “more comprehensive approach to trauma-informed systems for our kids.”

“That is a gap that we really see; there are a lot more kids out there who have experienced trauma than there are kids who are eventually going to wind up with a mental health diagnosis,” she said. 

“I feel like that’s sort of what we’re missing; we’ve got to get all the teachers, administrators and everybody trained on what that looks like. It often shows up in their behaviors.”

Alabama Department of Mental Health Commissioner Kim Boswell.

Commission member Pamela Revels, a sheriff’s office sergeant and school resource officer in Lee County, called Boswell’s proposal a “great suggestion,” as did Commission member Proncey Robertson, former state representative and law enforcement officer, who stressed the importance of standardizing methods of identifying trauma.

“I think one of the biggest when we talk about gaps we have out there is right where you’re going; more on a preventative side to identify behavioral issues before they become a threat,” Robertson said. 

“I think we really need to talk about behavioral threat assessment within the schools, and having a standardized approach to that. If you don’t (do it consistently across all schools), it could be disciplinary, it could be administration deals with it, it could be a mental health issue. District to district, that standardization piece is not there yet.”

Despite the suggested gap in school safety, Boswell noted that progress on addressing mental health issues in schools has “been going really well,” which she thanked in no small part to additional funding allocated for the health department during the previous legislative session. 

As of Tuesday, Alabama schools have more than 240 individuals fully trained to provide mental health first aid for youths, Boswell said. Each school district also now has a safety coordinator, mental health coordinator and mental health therapist.

Another potential gap in school safety discussed by the commission was the exclusion of all school faculty – positions like bus drivers, custodians and maintenance staff – in some school system’s safety training.

“There’s eyes and ears that go beyond just the classroom teachers and the administrators, and I think that’s very important for us to recognize,” said Rep. Alan Baker, R-Brewton. 

“We need to have all hands on deck, eyes and ears out there, being very responsive and alert to us. We need to keep that alive; that is, that they have a direct responsibility in this process, and not just put it on the administrators and teachers.”

Perhaps a less obvious gap in school safety discussed during the meeting was improving relationships between SROs and students, which, according to commission member Eric Blankenship, the Henry County Sheriff, could potentially save lives.

Blankership recounted an incident in which a student alerted law enforcement of an alleged threat made on social media against Henry County High School. Thanks to the student notifying law enforcement, which Blankenship attributed to his office’s positive relationship with students, law enforcement were able to intercept an individual who attempted to bring a loaded firearm to a school football game.

Continuing to foster positive relationships between students and law enforcement, Collins said, was vital to school safety.

“It’s the partnership of law enforcement, the Department of Education and those individual schools that makes that SRO program work. It can’t be all on the school side, or all on the law enforcement side, it’s the partnership that makes it work. Through that partnership, students get to know law enforcement as a positive influence.”

Collins later told Alabama Daily News that the commission will continue to communicate with leaders in education, law enforcement, safety and mental health, and identify additional gaps in school safety. 

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