New School Year Brings Focus On Security And Mental Health

Aug 19, 2019

Florida schools are reopening for a new academic year. With the new year, comes new changes, including a new rule that Florida public schools are now required to provide mental and emotional health education to middle and high school students.

Schools will give information about coping skills, ways to sustain good mental health, suicide prevention and the impacts of substance abuse. It comes as attending school is potentially becoming more stressful.

Active shooter drills are held every month for students from head start to 12th grade. Each school also has an armed security guard, and some will have trained school personnel carrying firearms.

Mary Bridges is senior director of Student Services for the Orange County Public School District. She joined The Florida Roundup to discuss how having armed guards and active shooter drills affects students’ psyches.

An excerpt from the conversation follows:

The Florida Roundup: Armed guards, active shooter drills and the like, what are your concerns as someone who works with students about how this is affecting kids psyches and their psychological state as they come into school every day?

Bridges: It's important to understand that we all see that this world is different. We have to look at how our schools are being run and how we're teaching our kids a little bit differently. In Orange County, what we're trying to do is just make sure that the communication and the training is there for our teachers and for our parents, so that students understand and are taught what's going on with the active assailant drills.

The biggest part of an active assailant drill, I believe, is that, if the teacher is very knowledgeable about what's going on. They understand it. They can explain it to the children beforehand, so that there's not confusion or at the point that there is fear. So age appropriately, we're trying to make sure that our teachers understand the drills, and then the teachers understand how to explain those to the students.

Do you feel that students are being negatively affected by these monthly drills or not? How do you see the students reacting?  

There were many educators and parents that were asking to possibly have fewer, not every month, for the elementary schools; that didn't go through at the state. I'd like to see fewer of them.

But when you think about it, we have fire drills, we have tornado drills, and the way those are presented to the students, if it's presented age appropriately, then they understand that you're just trying to keep them safe.  And you're doing practices in order to keep them safe.

So, I think if we look at these in the same way, then we can explain to students do the drills and then at our schools were being cognizant that after a drill, or at any point if a teacher thinks that either a specific student has anxiety, or if a classroom starts talking and has some concerns, we make sure that the school counselor or one of our mental health counselors or psychologists can follow up on that and make sure that we respond to that.

If you could, describe what that basic drill is like.  I realize it's different perhaps in the level of school, but what's a basic active assailant or active shooter Code Red drill like for Orange County Public School students?

Teachers are trained again before school starts. Teachers go through trainings every year for those drills. But basically when a drill is called, the students have already been told beforehand where in their classroom they can go in order to hide, whether it be into a corner that has a hard corner, or under a table, where to go if they're outside of the classroom. You know how to get to some place quickly. So they're done rather quickly.

We don't want to disrupt or make it seem like it's something more than it is. We definitely want to make sure that nobody mistakes it for an actual event. But so far, they have been done fairly smoothly and we haven't had any issues school wide with any of this. With the students we just make sure that the teachers are trained well to pick up on anything if we have any students that show some anxiety.

What about any differences in training at the school level—with teachers and student mental health and different communities experiences with law enforcement with firearms and with violence?

In Orange County, we actually we have nine different municipalities. So our resource officers come from different city police forces and the county sheriffs. We see different cultures of even how those units work in the schools. So we've been really trying to do as much training as possible, with our resource officers and our law enforcement, as well as with our teachers and staff at the school. 

You want to make sure that you know how to work with [students] and make sure that you're not adding to their anxiety because school may be the only place that they feel safe.