School safety was the first topic of discussion at Tuesday’s joint school meeting between Floyd County and Rome City schools and local legislators, which led into a discussion on how to handle mental health in schools.

The question came from Alvin Jackson, a Rome City Schools board of education member, to Rep. Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee, regarding school safety. Lumsden, who has served on the House Study Committee on School Security, said securing schools isn’t as big of an issue as mental health. He cited that most of the threats have come within schools, and said a focus on positive school climate must be addressed. At the time there were no school resources to address these issues, he said.

Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, said she and Lumsden served on the committee because of his background in law enforcement and her background in education and mental health. She said school systems statewide were sent additional funds to help with school security before the committee even met. She added it is important to identify behavior that seems unusual and to take it seriously.

There is a way to help everyone and make sure everyone feels safe, Dempsey said. If there are issues inside of a student that are boiling up, they need to be taken care of because that could be a lost opportunity for a great future, she added.

These students (involved in school shootings) had a history of problems, and Lumsden said it all boils down to school climate and open lines of communication between students and teachers. The committee is recommending there be an additional counselor whose focus is on the social and mental health of the students

FCS Superintendent Jeff Wilson said he would love to have a mental health counselor in every school, however there are deeper issues to mental health which extends into the families as well. He said treating students at school won’t fully work if they are sent back into a dangerous environment. Dr. Melissa Davis, a pediatrician at Harbin Clinic and a RCS board member, added to this comment, saying there needs to be safe, stable and nurturing relationships between schools and their families which cost the school boards nothing.

“All is not lost, and not everything is tied to money,” she said.

FCS Board Member Tony Daniels said not everything needs to be blamed on mental illness. He agreed with Davis and said the biggest difficulty is identifying the problems in a child — whether that is mental health, problems at home or other factors.

It is more than just increasing law enforcement he said.

“I think that is what we are all saying.”

Lumsden replied that at the end of the day it comes down to making sure students feel safe speaking with faculty and staff about things they have seen or are feeling. Melinda Strickland, an FCS board member, commented on how developing these relationships with students would be easier for teachers to do if they were not focused solely on moving their students from one test to the next.

Drug habits and addictive behavior were also attributed to signs of mental health problems Lumsden reported to the school boards. He said if students see the behavior at home they will copy it. Statistics show if a young person doesn't get into an addictive pattern until 21 the chances of them getting into an addictive pattern is almost non-existent he said. He added he did not have a detailed plan on how to get there, but the schools need to begin to make an effort to stop these new threats.

Coincidently, the U.S. Department of Education released their Final Report of the Federal Commission on School Safety, which highlighted federal recommendations on what the federal, state and local branches of education should do in regards to school safety. According to the 180 page report, the commission’s work fell into three categories: preventing school violence, protecting students and teachers, mitigating the effects of violence and responding to and recovering from attacks.

The report focused on preventing school violence by promoting character education, creating a positive school climate, focusing on mental health of students, conducting threat assessments by encouraging students to report suspicious activity, a focus on discipline by teachers in the classroom, as well as other topics. In the protecting students and teachers category, the report suggested schools conducted regular specialized training with school resource officers, training staffs who are veterans on how to respond to threatening situations and creating appropriate security measures throughout the building.  

The final category the report focused on was that of response and recovery of a violent incident at a school. The commission stated the value of the active shooter drills and said reports showed the number of casualties at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, would have been higher if it had not been for the drills the school regularly held. The full report of the Federal Commission on School Safety can be viewed at the U.S. Department of Education’s website.