Missouri high school students recommend ways to improve school safety, student mental health

By Brie Zeltner and Malaya Mason

St. Louis, MO - More licensed therapists on campus. Requiring parent or guardian participation in all school safety discussions. Implementing “calm rooms” where students can go to center themselves. Making every school inclusive and welcoming of students of all genders, sexual identities, races and abilities.

These are just some of the ways that Missouri high school students, members of a youth advisory board at St. Louis nonprofit Alive and Well Communities, say their schools could be made safer, and students could be more comfortable attending school.

“Sometimes kids get overwhelmed and have panic attacks at school, and they just go to the bathroom,” to recover, said Jesteena Chuc, a junior at Hazelwood Central High School. “That’s not ideal for a learning environment.”

Over the next year and a half, the students will be working on implementing at least one of their ideas, through a series of virtual youth empowerment workshops this summer, the development of both large and small-scale policy change “asks” and culminating in engagement of legislators and school policy makers, said Ramona Coleman, Alive and Well Communities manager of youth advocacy and activation.

The students' idea list sprang from an April virtual meeting in which about two dozen area teens shared their concerns and experience with feeling safe in school, both in terms of physical danger and mental health. The “Community State of Young People” event was hosted by Alive and Well Communities, which is focused on reducing the impact of toxic stress in the St. Louis area and America’s Promise Alliance, a national network of groups designed to improve conditions for young people.

Defining safety
The students all defined the concept of safety differently.

“School safety to me is when students can wake up and only have to worry about their friends and what they’re going to be doing that day rather than worrying about what dangerous situation they may have to deal with,” said Trey Scott, a junior at Sikeston High School.

School safety extends beyond the campus as well, the students noted, and students also need to feel safe while on school buses, or when traveling to and from school and school-sponsored events.

“I feel like we should find different types of resources for people walking to the bus or coming home… so we can have kids coming to school more safely,” said Precious Barry, a sophomore at Riverview Gardens High School.

School safety is about mental health too, noted Skiyah Martin, a junior at Eureka High School. Students need to be “mentally safe and aware of where the [school] resources are,” she said.

Access to mental health services
Almost all the students said they felt their schools did a good job in providing mental health services to students, but agreed that communication about available resources could be better.

“Just talking about mental health more and just making sure that people know that if you’re struggling with mental health or depression and things like that, that it’s okay, and you shouldn’t be embarrassed to talk about it,” said Martin.

Missouri schools perform significantly below the national average on the ratio of school psychologists to students, based on data gathered from 207 school districts by the Missouri Association of School Psychologists. There is only one guidance counselor for every 347 Missouri schoolchildren, according to the American School Counselors Association, and the recommended ratio is one per 250 students.

Chuc said that while her school has more counselors available than most, she still feels that the staff have been overwhelmed with the number of requests for help recently, which could make them difficult to reach.

The group recommended using social media to spread awareness about mental health resources, as well as to reduce some of the stigma surrounding talking about mental health.

“A lot of people just kind of wear a mask whenever it comes to mental health,” Xavier Blake, a junior at University City High School. “So we need to talk more about it and make it a priority in our schools.”

School resource officers

School resource officers (SROs), who are usually active or retired police officers, are in many schools in the St. Louis area. While they’re present to increase student safety, not all students feel the officers make them safer.

Azariah Estes, 17, a junior at Ritenour High School, said that the three SROs she knows well at her school are “very friendly and do want to engage with students.” They helped her when she was the victim of sexual harassment, she said, and make an effort to get to know the high school community.

“Even though we never found who did it... they still gave me a sense of closure and that they are with me and that I will be okay,” she said.

Others at her school have reported less positive interactions with the officers, though, she said, and Estes understands that for some, particularly students of color, the officers provoke fear, not feelings of safety.

There are 44 SROs from the St. Louis County Police Department serving in 13 county school districts. While the National Association of School Resource Officers recommends one SRO per school building, it’s unclear how many of these officers work in Missouri schools, as it’s not tracked at the state level.

According to a Brookings Institute study in 2018, the presence of SROs can make students-- particularly female students and Black students-- feel less safe.

“There is a stigma still with police officers and youth,” said Estes, who lives in St. Ann in North St. Louis County, where the police force has made news due to its aggressive and often dangerous use of police chases and other tactics, as well as a history of employing officers from larger cities in the metro area with less than stellar records, according to reports in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“It just brings a fear factor in general when you see a police officer uniform and it just makes you feel on edge,” Estes said.

Estes is a member of her high school’s social justice/activism group called Game Changers, which is attempting to change the policy for SROs at her own school and require casual wear on the job.

“That’s something free, that would make the students feel like they’re not being watched by policemen, but just interacting with actual people who have lives outside their job,” she said.

Schools could also offer more opportunities for students to get to know their SROs, she said.

“I imagine having field days like we did in elementary school. Imagine having a SRO play you in basketball! I feel like that’s the best way to build community.”

Estes hopes that the work she and other youth advisory board members have started will result in lasting change at her school and the larger community.

“After the panel, there was that ‘what now’ question floating around,” she said. There’s a lot more work to be done, she added, but she hopes that the group can focus on some simple, physical changes to the school environment to make it more comfortable and less institutional, which the group believes will positively impact students’ mental health.

“Making it more friendly, and less prison-like… that’s obtainable. We always want to go for obtainable goals.”

Brie Zeltner, a former (Cleveland) Plain Dealer health reporter, is director of content and programs for the Urban Health Media Project. UHMP’s Malaya Mason is a high school senior in Washington, D.C.