Mental Health the focus of 2021 School Safety Forum

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November 11, 2021 by HCDE Communications

For the second year in a row, Harris County Department of Education’s Center for Safe and Secure Schools (CSSS) held its annual School Safety Forum virtually on Nov. 5.

“The School Safety Forum is an opportunity for our center to share expertise from our national and local partners as it relates to school safety,” said CSSS Security Specialist Janice Owolabi. “It’s a place to come and get some information about how to keep your school safe.”

This year’s forum centered on the holistic approach to emergencies, from planning to recovery, with a special focus on mental and emotional wellness.

Dr. Frank DeAngelis (top left), Janice Owolabi (top right), and Dr. Shannon Devlin (bottom) participate in a Q&A session during the School Safety Forum, November 5, 2021.

“Over the last four years, the [safety forums] have really been about physical safety, the mechanics of what safety is, talking about active shooters, and the tactics and nuts and bolts behind what you need to do,” said Owolabi. “This year, we knew that emotional safety needed to come into it, but we still couldn’t leave out the tactical. So, our goal this year was to connect emotional safety into the emergency safety planning.”

Three nationally recognized speakers led participants through sessions that built on each other.

“The biggest takeaway that I wanted them to get as attendees is how [the speakers] all connect,” said Owolabi.

The forum began with Shannon, Devlin, Ph.D., a school psychologist and Army National Guard veteran who discussed emergency response plans for emotional issues that impact students, staff, and the community.

Devlin, who has been a first responder in various high-profile emergency incidents, including the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting in 2012, emphasized the importance of developing detailed plans that include psychological first aid, putting it into action, and practicing drills.

“One of the biggest barriers [to school safety] is overcoming that mindset that ‘it won’t happen here.’ This mindset is just not a reality anymore,” said Devlin. “Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a tragedy to change that mentality. One of the things we’ve come to know is that being prepared and being the least reactive as possible really minimize the impact of trauma and its related stressors.”

Frank DeAngelis, Ph.D., the former principal of Columbine High School, followed Devlin. In June of 2014, after 35 years leading Columbine, DeAngelis retired and currently works as a consultant in safety and emergency management.

DeAngelis shared a detailed and vulnerable account of the shooting on his campus, including the struggles he and his community faced in the aftermath of the incident.

“If you had told me that a Columbine would have happened in Columbine, I wouldn’t have believed you,” said DeAngelis. “Like Shannon said, [I thought], ‘it won’t happen here [in Columbine],’ but it did. Now what? How do you rebuild school, community, and life in general?”

He acknowledged that as part of his ongoing recovery, he sought the help of a mental health professional.

“Counseling is so important. Even today, 22 years later, I’m still in counseling,” said DeAngelis. “Whenever these events happen, it could be in Parkland, it could be in Sandy Hook, it could be in Houston, it takes me back. What I have now are skills and the techniques to deal with it. So, counseling is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength.”

DeAngelis says he sees a similar emotional toll in educators from the COVID-19 pandemic that he saw in the emotional aftermath of Columbine.

“Many times, teachers enjoy a great, great career, and then there is burnout. With the pandemic, we are seeing teachers that are very near retirement saying, ‘I’ve had enough’ and retiring a few years earlier than normal. I saw that after Columbine. Many people said, ‘I could have gone a few extra years, but the toll on us was very difficult.’”

His notice to educators and emergency management personnel to exercise self-care led into the last speaker of the day, Courtney Busby, Ph.D., the program lead for the youth depression and suicide prevention clinic at Baylor College of Medicine at Texas Children’s Hospital.

She began with the reminder to attendees that “self-care is not selfish” and subsequently offered participants an abundance of self-care strategies and tools.

Owolabi, the School Safety Forum organizer, explains that self-care is the first step in being able to heal a community.

“Dr. Busby’s message was driven from Frank’s conversation about how you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you can help anybody else,” said Owolabi. “If you’re not in good shape, you’re not going to be good to anybody else.”

In January, the CSSS will host an in-person Digital Threat Assessment workshop in partnership with Safer Schools Together. During the workshop, participants will be taught how to investigate and monitor threats made on social media and other electronic media.

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