Hall school chief: Prioritizing emotional health makes us all safer

Credit: Courtesy of Hall County Schools

Credit: Courtesy of Hall County Schools

Will Schofield is the superintendent of the 28,000-student Hall County School District in Gainesville, Georgia. He has held that position for 18 years and has been a school superintendent for 23 years.

In a guest column, Schofield says the emotional health of students and staff requires that school districts make intentional efforts to emphasize relationships with students and teach them self-regulation. (This is a video that explains the district’s approach.)

By Will Schofield

As the longest-serving superintendent in Georgia, I feel an obligation to offer an opinion regarding legitimate ways we can substantially improve school safety. Since the era of the one-room schoolhouse, educators have understood that their top priority is to ensure the well-being of our boys and girls, standing beside families to support nurturing environments that prepare the next generation for a changing world.

Today, the call from parents, teachers, policymakers, law enforcement agencies, and communities is to make our schools safe. Unfortunately, almost all of the solutions touted seem to either be a one-dimensional improvement of physical environments (cameras, metal detectors, fencing, and additional security staff) or an increase in the number of mental health therapists (meaningful, but upon even a cursory study of reality, this is numerically impossible and beyond our appetite for cost).

Credit: Courtesy of Hall County Schools

Credit: Courtesy of Hall County Schools

Additionally, armed on-campus staff and world-class physical environments have uncertain impacts on the outcome of these heinous violent events. Individuals desiring to do harm almost always gain entry into a facility with which they are familiar.

How are schools to respond? I would suggest we consider intentional effort and investment in the emotional health of our students, team members, and community. Without thousands of additional therapists, schools already possess the unique ability to teach the resilience skills of self-regulation and relationship effectiveness to our students and communities.

In the Hall County School District, we have developed this curriculum and are delivering it to students as a part of the regular school program. We are witnessing students who are better able to cope with life’s challenges and disappointments. It is no surprise that emotionally balanced students are better able to control their stress and anxiety, which lessens their propensity for impulsive and aggressive actions.

When students (and adults) have access to emotional health resources, they develop realistic and supportive mechanisms for dealing with difficulties, ultimately creating safer and more encouraging learning environments, which lead to increased achievement as well.

Providing emotional health support also assists in discovering and addressing underlying mental health challenges. Many pupils who act violently or aggressively have undiagnosed and untreated mental health disorders as their underlying cause. A recent study done by the Secret Service suggested that a significant majority of school shooters had mental health issues and received little or no treatment. Engaging with students on an emotional level provides a real-time picture of potential issues that a student may be experiencing, and it places schools in a unique position to offer support and counseling services to those most in need.

Finally, promoting emotional well-being can assist schools in dealing with increasing levels of bullying and harassment. Many students who harass others do so as a result of personal emotional problems or traumatic events in their own lives. Schools can decrease these events by addressing their root causes. It must be part of the school fabric to help students feel connected to their peers and their school community.

Albert Einstein once suggested that there was an easy solution to every complex problem, and that solution was wrong. While the earnest solutions being considered are not necessarily mistaken, I would humbly suggest that we must think beyond what may appear to be quick or obvious answers in order to address the root cause — the emotional needs of a hurting generation. Our nation’s future depends on it.