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COMMENTARY: Las Vegas high school embraces innovative approach to combat bullying, violence

Violence and bullying in schools is an unfortunate reality in our children’s day-to-day lives. As a teacher at Centennial High School, I work every day with the victims and perpetrators, alike. I have counseled students struggling with anxiety or depression as a direct result of bullying and school violence. I have mediated disputes, broken up fights and dealt with the growing problems associated with the massive influence that social media plays in our students’ lives.

According to a 2017 Centers for Disease Control survey, 24 percent of students reported they had been in a physical altercation one or more times in the past year. Nearly 20 percent of students reported they have been bullied on school property and 19 percent of students admitted to being bullied electronically. Perhaps more alarming was that 15.7 percent of students reported they had carried a weapon in the 30 days prior to taking the survey.

Many ideas have been proposed to curb violence in our schools, such as the installation of metal detectors, an increase in the number of school police and even the arming of teachers. None of these ideas, however, targets one of the major root causes of school violence: the lack of emphasis on mental health diagnosis and treatment and the availability of these services to our students.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 children aged 13-18 has a mental health condition. These conditions include anxiety, depression and behavioral conduct disorders. The effects of these disorders have a significant impact on a child’s education and quality of life. Alliance statistics show that 50 percent of these students will drop out of school and that 70 percent of children involved with juvenile justice systems have a diagnosed mental health condition.

Only 71 percent of schools report they have the ability to diagnose mental health issues through a licensed mental health professional. Further, only 64 percent of schools reported their students have access to treatment by licensed mental health professionals.

We see similar, if not worse, trends in Nevada.

In May 2017, education policy experts at UNLV reported Nevada was ranked at the bottom of all states in providing access to mental health care. Further, the recommended student-to-counselor ratio from the American School Counselors Society is 250-to-1. The actual ratio in Nevada schools is 508-to-1.

So, what solutions exist to tackle these issues?

One answer is additional funding earmarked for mental health diagnosis and treatment in our schools. However, the prospect of that is subject to a multitude of factors and usually outside of the school’s control. Another solution is the development of healthy and supportive dialogue between teachers, administrators and students.

For example, during the 2017-2018 school years, Centennial teachers and administrators began to see a sharp uptick in school violence. There was an increase in bullying — especially via social media — and physical violence between students. Our principal decided to try something new. He formed a student advisory group comprised of students of diverse cultures and socioeconomic levels, regardless of their academic standing or past behavior in school. Some students who had a history of physical violence against others, or had participated in bullying, were included. At one of their first meetings, the students were asked to come up with a name. They chose the “Bulldog Legislature.” This would be a student advisory group whose mission was to aid the Centennial staff in identifying strategies to combat bullying and violence in the school. Perhaps it could minimize the negative effects they have on the mental health of our students.

A year after the student advisory group was formed, violence and bullying at Centennial dropped back to more traditional levels. The Bulldog Legislature gave a voice to students who had never had one before, and students and school administrators learned much in the process.

Outside of traditional solutions, we have to experiment with innovative approaches to help eliminate bullying and violence in our schools. The empowerment of historically disenfranchised and forgotten students, who often are contending with trauma and mental health issues in their own lives, is a powerful way to show these students that they matter, especially when no one else in their life may be telling them that they do.

David Stewart, a biology teacher at Centennial High School, serves on the board of directors for Human Rights for Kids.

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