By: Diana Bello Aristizabal
“Educating parents is key to keep our schools safe,” Miami-Dade County School Board Member for District 5 and Vice Chair Danny Espino said regarding the 2023-2024 school year, scheduled to start on August 17th, in which the focus will be improving students’ mental health by allocating more funds to this element, upgrading existing practices and spreading knowledge.
According to Espino, although mental health is not the only aspect involved in school safety, it is the foundation of some issues faced by MDC schools, such as bullying, gun-related violence or drug use.
“All the active shooter cases we’ve had begun as a bullying issue that turned into an emotional issue around which there was no appropriate intervention. What we want to achieve this new school year is to prevent these types of incidents from turning into a violence case or a tragedy,” the school board representative explained.
These incidents, which many fail to take seriously enough, are becoming more frequent in Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Just last school year, the media repeatedly reported fights involving minors both inside and outside of school premises.
More prevention, less reaction
Working towards improving students’ mental health in order to make schools safer implies first refining the definition of bullying within school protocols so that everyone in charge of students can properly identify early signs of bullying.
“Although we already have some protocols in place, it is necessary that both teachers and administrative staff, cafeteria employees, or bus drivers are on the same page regarding what bullying really is and are also trained in identifying the patterns that can lead to this problem in order to intervene on a timely manner since that will be the focus of the next school year,” says Espino.
It should be noted that currently, each school has a School Resource Officer who works very closely with school administration to deal with these types of incidents. Police officers participate in behavioral threat assessments, along with school site staff and administration, and have also been trained in crisis intervention, de-escalation tactics, and youth mental health first aid.
However, this year additional strategies will be conducted. The first one will be to fight against the harmful effects of social media on the student population. “The school board is considering joining the litigation that other institutions have started against social media companies like TikTok or Snapchat that seek to keep their users glued to these platforms, which interferes with our children’s activities,” says Espino.
The problem is such that this year the governor passed a bill that allows teachers to eliminate cell phones and tablets in the classroom, limit the use of Internet in schools and restrict access to TikTok during the school day. “Teachers have as part of their bill of rights the ability to implement said rules in their schools,” he explains.
Regarding the use of social media platforms outside of school hours, an attempt will be made to change the code of conduct so that students who instigate fights and/or spread them through social media are disciplined.
“Many teenagers witness fights, record them and then post them on social media to collect likes. That should be a felony,” says Espino, adding that in the same line there should also be a change regarding the consequences suffered by those involved in a fight.
“A student who was involved in a fight at a Doral school received a 10-day suspension as punishment, which ended up extending her vacations. I am not satisfied with this protocol. Instead, an investigation should be conducted to determine why the situation escalated and what motivated the student to respond with violence.”
But beyond a change in the way these acts are addressed, this year efforts will be made, aiming to improve the ratio around the number of mental health specialists per number of students to ensure that many more children can get help from counselors, social workers, mental health coordinators or psychologists.
Also, it is essential that parents are highly involved in their children’ lives. “Many students don’t speak up, fearing the situation gets worse or that they will be tagged as snitches. However, as parents we have the responsibility to do our research, evaluate and intervene if necessary. This upcoming year we are going to implement a campaign against bullying so that the zero-tolerance policy that many schools claim to have is truly put into practice.”
Other actions planned for this year that will reinforce school safety are: Unifying the police response protocol in emergency situations, such as an active shooter one, to reduce the response time by 50 or 70 percent and continuing to work on making the salaries of teachers and school staff more competitive.
In this sense, at the end of July there was an advance, since it was announced public school teachers in the county would receive a salary increase under a tentative new contract reached between the educator’s union (United Teachers of Dade) and the district.
Under it, county teachers could get a 7 to 10 percent raise, while administrative staff and part-time teachers would get a 4 percent pay raise.