I’m writing from a perspective I don’t see often enough in our shared deliberations about Colorado’s epidemic of gun violence.
I am a school psychologist. Every public school has a school psychologist, due to federal special education guidelines dating from the early 70s. Public schools are required by civil rights provisions to identify students who have various handicapping conditions, including emotional conditions.
This means that every public school student who has, or is close to having, a qualifying emotional condition should be on the radar of their school psychologist.
Special education law requires appropriate instruction, which in the case of emotional conditions includes instruction in social skills, emotional regulation and use of positive behavioral supports.
The current trend in education is to provide “tiered” levels of support, which means the general education population should be getting a general level of instruction in social skills. There are higher tiers of emotional/ behavioral need that fall short of the highest tier, special education. However, these students do qualify for more intensive instruction and support, and should be on the radar of the school psychologist.
Colorado has a unique history with this population. The state initially identified a larger group of students for special education services than the federal definition allowed, including students who had “behavior disorder.” The state was subsequently required to return some federal funding it had received for these students. This resulted in several decades of revisions to the identification process and a “lack of clarity on the part of educators around criteria, assessment, policies and programming,” as of 1998, according to the Department of Education Special Education Unit.
Essentially, Colorado “over-served” this population and subsequently there were many modifications of state guidance.
Colorado has another unique contributor to our present dilemma. At the time of the Columbine shooting, Colorado’s special education funding was 50th in the country as compared to income. Our neighbor, New Mexico, provides special education funding to districts based on identified student needs. In Colorado, our uniform funding formula essentially provided a financial disincentive to qualify students for additional (unfunded) services. The Colorado school funding formula has since been litigated to the Colorado Supreme Court and continues to be a long-standing problem.
This was the state of practice at the time of the Columbine school shooting.
I began practicing as a school psychologist in Colorado shortly after that horrific event, and was the behavior team leader for our special education area. We looked deeply into the issues of practice that contributed to under-identifying those students. At that time, students identified as having a “significant, identifiable emotional disturbance” in my schools were not provided access to a mental health professional as part of their individualized educational program.
There are solutions to preventing violence. While I worked as a school psychologist in Colorado, I steered the piloting of a very successful program that subsequently was awarded a large grant by the Colorado Department of Education. The Interpersonal Cognitive Problem-Solving curriculum is a thoroughly researched way to improve student behavioral and social/emotional outcomes, including academic achievement. This curriculum is identified as “promising” by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and was identified as a “model” and “exemplary” violence prevention program by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice as well as the National Association of School Psychologists and the American Federation of Teachers.
We have effective programs that lead to violence reduction; we need to commit to implement these programs.
We need counselors, not cops. There was an armed school resource officer on campus at Columbine. The National Association of School Psychologists is now speaking out about research showing increased anxiety, stress and traumatic symptoms among some students and staff following lockdown drills.
Let’s rethink our funding and services for emotional and interpersonal health. Let’s fund special education and early intervention services. Let’s put our limited budgets toward positions, including school psychologists, that would best address these issues.
Laurie Roberts is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist who lives in Bayfield.