As school districts head into the 2021-22 academic year, COVID-19 is still dominating conversations. But two other topics should also be front and center for school leaders, according to a report by District Administration: mental health support and violence prevention.

The nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise is concerned that, as schools reopen after a largely remote year, students may struggle to get reacclimated to their classrooms, their instruction and their peers. They worry there could be an uptick in stress, suicide, self-harm and gun incidents.

“We’re really concerned about this back-to-school season and want to ensure that schools, adults and kids are ready for what we feel is a potential powder keg that could explode unless we take preventative measures and put supports in place right now,” says Nicole Hockley, co-founder and managing director of Sandy Hook Promise, whose son Dylan was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in 2012. “We are forecasting that there will be more violence in schools. So we really want to help schools prepare for that by prioritizing prevention, prioritizing kids reconnecting, not just assuming that when they go back to school day one, that kids are so resilient, they’re just going to bounce back. That’s an unrealistic expectation.”

To that end, Hockley says, awareness, support and understanding are critical. Sandy Hook Promise offers a number of programs, such as Say Something and the SAVE Promise Club to help schools and students. “We need to provide opportunities for them to connect, to relearn social cues and body language and relearn how to express themselves to their trusted adults to ensure that they’re getting the help that they need.”

Hockley says that even during the pandemic, Sandy Hook’s Crisis Center has seen a 7% spike in life-safety tips, or calls to express that a life is in danger, with the majority around suicide.

Dr. Rachel Masi, research director for Sandy Hook Promise, licensed clinical psychologist and board member for the National Center for School Safety, says schools should consider a holistic approach to helping students interact and succeed.

“I think a big piece is how schools can incorporate that social-emotional learning piece, along with the physical safety that they’re going to have to think about when it comes to COVID,” Masi says. “With all schools facing so many constant changes, policies and decisions, looking at it as a holistic approach is going to be incredibly significant.”

This includes ensuring students feel comfortable in reaching out for help, building peer support mechanisms and boosting teacher and administrator awareness are important.
With supports in place, and help from organizations like Sandy Hook Promise that offer training and resources, there is hope.