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Three Ways to Help 'Loners' and Improve School Safety

Schools must support isolated students.

As school reopens this month, following yet another school shooting, teachers of adolescents may be inclined to take a second look at their own students and wonder if any of them might be capable of pulling off a similar violent attack.

Often, these anxieties land on "loner" students. There is usually one, if not a handful of them, in every high school — shy, socially awkward, devoid of a core group of friends. Perhaps with behavioral problems or perhaps not, these students often melt into school surroundings with the apparent aim of being unbothered, safe, and invisible. Some of them may also have emerging mental illness.

While most of these so-called loners never commit violent acts, it is still imperative that schools make it their business to reach out and support these students. Studies show that loners are actually more likely to be bullied than to be bullies themselves, so we need to protect these students so that they don't become more isolated and scarred by a hostile school climate. There may also be psychological consequences to a school's inaction in the face of students' persistent isolation, because without intervention some of these students can become more dejected, experience repeated rejection and academic and social failure, and have an increased risk of harming themselves or others.

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Research consistently shows that building connections between and among students and teachers, teachers and administrators, and the school and parents makes schools safer and offers better support to those who are at risk of becoming isolated, bullied, and teased. The strong school climate engendered by these types of connections has been shown to help students thrive.

I've highlighted three strategies schools and teachers can use to reach out to these loner students while promoting outreach and preventative measures that enhance school safety.

Provide In-House Mental Health Assistance

The presence of mental health clinicians in schools is important at all times, not just after an incidence of violence. They can make significant headway in identifying viable threats as well as providing mental health services to students in need. If schools do not have this presence, they should establish strong collaboration with outside referral resources that can see youth in a timely way. The statistics regarding the number of students with mental health problems who are without access to services makes it clear that school-sponsored mental health must be a priority: around 20 percent of children have had a seriously debilitating mental disorder at some point in their life, yet only about half receive treatment.

Mental health clinicians can help determine, for instance, whether a student is simply "low" or needs more intensive help, and they can guide the implementation of a treatment plan with school personnel. They can also access emergency safety assessment and inpatient services at a hospital if threats to themselves or other serious behaviors emerge.

The sustained support of school personnel (teachers, administrators, and mental health clinicians) and the outpatient team at a hospital or clinic can make all the difference in supporting isolated students in need of help who may temporarily decompensate (fall apart) because of worsening depression or paranoia.

Create a Safety Net

Another way to support students is to follow a key recommendation that emerged from the Safe Schools Initiative: The way to improve behavior and learning and create safer and healthier schools is to make sure that each student is connected to an adult at the school.

Schools have put this approach into practice by using colored pushpins to classify all students on their rolls into one of three different groups: red (high alert, in crisis, or disruptive), green (kids who have an existing relationship with an adult in the school), and white (kids without an adult link). Schools then contact the parents of those identified by red pushpins. Administrators perform outreach to guardians and school personnel to determine what the issues are and how/if they're being addressed by the school team. For students with white pushpins, efforts are made to link each of these students with an adult at the school. This systematic plan creates a "safety net" by ensuring that every student is accounted for.

Cultivate a Nonpunitive Environment

A school culture that promotes trust and easy communication between students and adults is crucial to supporting all students — those who may be in crisis as well as those who aren't — because students feel safe enough to disclose concerning information if they hear it from one of their peers. In order to support this type of culture, four things should happen:

  • Every student should be known by at least one adult in the school. Students are often apprehensive about sharing their concerns regarding other students' safety with adults, but they are more likely to come forward if they already have a trusting relationship with a school adult.
  • Students who express concerns for the safety of another student should feel as if they are taken seriously.
  • Students should feel free to communicate without the fear of punitive consequences to another student (i.e. expulsion) for making threats or exhibiting other concerning behaviors.
  • Students who do pass along concerning information should receive assurance from adults that appropriate follow-up will occur.

We'll never know if the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary could have been prevented, but there are things educators in every school can do right now to support students who may unknowingly be in need of intervention. They can guarantee that every student is known well by at least one adult and advocate for access to trained mental health professionals for advice if problems are identified. They can also cultivate school climates that support students. Rather than react in fear to this recent school massacre in ways that further ostracize loners, we need to mobilize, in a coordinated effort, the resources that can make a difference.

This post originally appeared in the Harvard Education Letter.

Nancy Rappaport is associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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