School Counselors Promote School Safety–Editorial by Dr. Linda Greene

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By:  Dr. Linda C. Greene, GWU Professor of Counseling

Jonesboro. Columbine. Sandy Hook. Simply hearing those names strikes fear in our hearts. No one wants to think about children being harmed—especially at school. Events such as these focus our attention on school violence and school safety. For the most part, we have been successful at keeping our schools free from this kind of violence and, fortunately, events like these are relatively rare. However, what we frequently fail to recognize is that violence is present in schools every day and often comes in much more subtle forms.

According to Dr. Ronald Stephens, Executive Director of the National School Safety Center, students are far more likely to experience violence among their peers than from an armed intruder. He advocates for the use of effective bullying prevention programs as a means of managing and preventing most of the violence and safety issues that occur within our schools. October brings an added emphasis on school safety. The Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights (PACER) has designated October as National Bullying Prevention Month, and the National School Safety Center has designated the week of October 20-26 as America’s Safe Schools Week. Organizations like these help to highlight the important work that schools are doing to keep students safe each and every day.

The most insidious form of school violence is bullying. While bullying occurs in the form of physical violence and intimidation, it also takes place in less obvious ways. A more covert form of bullying, known as relational aggression, involves actions such as spreading rumors, giving the silent treatment, and isolating individuals from their social group. In the “Good Old Days,” students who were bullied at school could escape their tormentors when the bell rang at the end of the day and they were able to go home. The advent of social media has made it impossible to find even temporary relief from the effects of relational aggression. The use of social media as a bullying tool has widened the potential audience for the bullying behavior. This leaves students feeling alone, humiliated, and helpless. Furthermore, those who are targeted in this way may fear that even greater humiliation awaits them if they tell.

While all members of the school community have important roles to play in promoting safe learning environments and protecting students from all forms of violence, school counselors have specific contributions to make to this effort. Addressing the immediate concerns of students who are being bullied is the most obvious contribution. Today’s professional school counselors are trained to provide responsive counseling services to students. While it is not the role of the school counselor to provide in-depth psychotherapy within the school setting, school counselors do receive training in the same clinical counseling skills as their mental health counterparts. They are able to assist students who are in distress at school, provide crisis services, and assist the families of students who need additional counseling with referrals to community resources. Recognizing the presence of a wide range of mental health concerns among students, school counseling programs across the country provide training in psychopathology. This knowledge gives school counselors the ability to recognize the signs of potentially serious problems early to intervene effectively with those students, reducing the likelihood that troubled students will harm themselves or others.

Advocacy is another important component of the school counselor’s role. Because bullying behaviors are often targeted toward students who are seen as “different” in some way, school counselors look for opportunities to support those students by promoting understanding and respect for all persons regardless of differences. Teaching effective communication skills and assertiveness strategies provides all students with tools to stand up for themselves and for others when they witness bullying behavior. A growing body of research suggests that there are serious long term negative impacts for students who bully as well as for students who are targets of bullying. Therefore, it is important to realize that students who bully need assistance in learning more effective and appropriate ways of interacting with others.

School counselors are trained to plan and coordinate comprehensive developmental school counseling programs that include character education and bullying prevention. Such programs promote the success of all students by helping to identify and remove barriers to learning, address the career development needs of students at all grade levels, and assist students with a variety of personal and social concerns. When school counselors are able to focus on these issues, they make a significant contribution to promoting respect and understanding among all members of the school community and fostering a school environment in which violence is not tolerated.

Dr. Linda Greene serves as professor of counseling in the Gardner-Webb University School of Psychology and Counseling.