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This article was written by J. Corey Williams, MD. Dr. Williams and co-authors Ashley Andreou, MPH, Tricia Lemelle, MD, MBA, Erica E. Coates, PhD, and Jeff Q. Bostic, MD, EdD, offered context and tiered interventions to help ease the mental health burden of students.
Early in my career, I worked as a middle school teacher on the frontlines of education. My colleagues and I have been asked to provide commentary on a study examining how school policing links to mental health challenges for Black students.
Our editorial, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), examines how zero-tolerance policies contribute to a penal system that harms students in the short-term.
The AACAP, American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Children’s Hospital Association have declared a mental health crisis among children, noting a rise in suicide rates nationwide. This crisis is inseparably linked to school-based policies and practices that prioritize punishment.
The study we analyzed, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, used a person-centered approach to data from prior research called Fragile Families and Child Well-being to understand the mental health of over a thousand Black students who experience policing in school.
Researchers identified four groups of Black students. Those who:
- Reported no school policing or discipline
- Experienced school discipline
- Witnessed school policing
- Were policed in school
Zero tolerance policies and racial battle fatigue.
In the early 1980s and into the 1990s school discipline procedures began to mirror “tough on crime” criminal justice policies that called for “zero tolerance” for infractions. Many proponents of these policies cite the “Broken Windows Theory,” which suggests that minor physical or social disorders (such as broken windows in a neighborhood) can lead to more serious crime if not punished.
In society, this meant penalizing low-level criminal offenses and wide sentencing disparities. In schools, punishments like suspension or expulsion were doled out for minor offenses such as being late for class or disruptive behaviors. These mirror-image punitive systems criminalized routine and nonviolent misbehaviors and helped establish the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Despite similar rates of misbehavior, Black students are three times as likely as their white peers to be arrested in school and twice as likely to be referred to law enforcement. Research has shown that students who experience suspension during high school are more likely to be incarcerated and have adverse outcomes long into adulthood
Schools have neglected or under-responded to students’ broader health and social needs and invested in punitive policies like school-based policing (often referred to as School Resource Officers – SROs). Often armed, these security personnel function as the enforcement arm of zero-tolerance policies.
Punitive policies and the proliferation of SROs in the era of school shootings have not made schools safer. Research has demonstrated that the presence of an SRO is unrelated to the likelihood or severity of a school shooting.
Perryman et al. examined this experience through the lens of “racial battle fatigue, a framework term to help understand the result of accumulated race-related stresses when a person faces consistently dismissive, demeaning, insensitive, or hostile race-based situations
.In schools, students confront these experiences regularly with teachers, counselors, school leaders, and security officers, no matter how well-meaning. This results in extra mental health burdens and exhaustion from ongoing racialized experiences. Fatigue, depression, anxiety, and other psychological distress are common manifestations of racial battle fatigue.
Witnessing policing in school causes trauma.
This research also clarifies the negative impact of witnessing policing, called vicarious stress or secondary trauma. This phenomenon is well known in the adult mental health research on PTSD but is relatively new in education and child mental health research. It is particularly acute when the person witnessing trauma can identify culturally or racially with the person undergoing the experience.
Students who know a classmate or peer being confronted, frisked, interrogated, assaulted, or arrested are impacted meaningfully in schools. In Black communities that have been over-policed and over-incarcerated, these experiences take on heightened meaning. And these students who witness the punitive events understand that the potential for an experience like this to happen to them is very high, increasing their sense of vulnerability and precarity.
Often, we make an implicit connection between education and good mental health, assuming that people who have earned degrees are healthier overall. This research puts that cultural myth to rest, especially regarding Black Americans. Yes, education has many benefits, but Black students who learn in these punitive environments can also have traumatic experiences that leave them scarred.
How educators and clinicians can help.
If US society is to achieve the promise of educational attainment for all, we must confront the challenges of punitive behavior management in schools. Educators and mental health professionals in classrooms are well-positioned to make a positive impact through tiered interventions.
Tier 1: Something for everyone.
Some schools are already at work implementing social-emotional curricula in classrooms. Social and emotional learning is a lifelong process through which children, adolescents, and adults learn how to develop and engage in healthy relationships.
Lessons to help students identify their emotions, build coping strategies, cultivate mindfulness, and engage in movement and exercise can be instrumental in behavior management. Proactive, in-class approaches like these can be applied universally to help address minor behavioral problems, often before they arise.
Tier 2: Targeted supports.
School staff can implement targeted support for students with more severe problems or from a family in crisis. Sometimes in consultation with a mental health clinician or social worker, strategies can be tailored to an individual student.
In proactive discussions, school staff can meet to manage each case, providing targeted solutions to disrupt problematic behaviors sensitively and positively. This starts with establishing nurturing environments where students and staff can thrive.
Schools can shift culture away from punitive policies by communicating the school’s shared priorities, building effective teams, and training more personnel to develop social, emotional, and behavioral expertise.
Tier 3: Clinical supports.
For students who are struggling with mental health conditions such as clinical depression or anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder, and other challenges, evidence-based clinical treatment is significantly more effective than punishment.
Child psychiatrists and psychologists often consult with school officials on Tier 1 and Tier 2 interventions to help manage behavior. Students struggling with their mental health should have the opportunity to seek treatment from a clinician.
Mental health professionals also play an essential role in bringing context to the school team. Because these professionals have a different relationship with students and their families, they may be able to help administrators understand that a student is faced with homelessness, for example—a social condition that might help explain their behavior and lend nuance to the consequences.
Investing in restorative justice.
Restorative justice principles seek to place repair at the center of consequences instead of punishment. This requires understanding and responding to the needs of everyone involved in an incident and those of the broader community.
More schools should identify or hire administrators leading restorative justice conversations, often involving conflict mediation between peers or students and school adults.
Research has demonstrated that students behave better and achieve more when they have trusting relationships with the adults in the school and much misbehavior results from the breakdown of these relationships. Restorative justice principles and practitioners help improve relationships and construct a space in which students and teachers can have open, constructive dialogue
.Often, non-punitive consequences are the result of restorative justice and similar efforts. These penalties are appropriate to the misbehavior and consider the context of the learning community. For instance, a student who smashes a chair during a tantrum might be expected to repair the chair, which facilitates the student’s understanding of the collaborative learning environment and the disruption their behavior causes to other pupils.
A problem that deserves our attention.
As our society grapples with its relationship to systems of policing and justice, this discourse can contribute to a national conversation about how we are complicit in these systems and how we can rethink policies that may contribute to harm.
Racial battle fatigue is not isolated to schools, and social determinants of health, such as the complex relationships between a student and their family, poverty, and food and housing insecurity, all impact classroom behavior.
Many of these concerns cannot be addressed by the school system itself. Similarly, education can only be so effective for students facing income inequality, unemployment, homelessness, and more.
Yet this research demonstrates that school culture does matter when it comes to Black students’ mental health, and there is much that can be done in schools to create a meaningful transformation. Instead of a stop on the pipeline to prison, schools should become a place of respite from the racialized battle Black students experience each day.