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Returning to In-Person Education, U.S. Schools Faced Mental Health Professional Shortage, SRO Use Debates in 2021-2022

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and related stressors continue to be tabulated, and a report released yesterday by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics outlines how schools returning to in-person education in the 2021-2022 school year grappled with violence, social and emotional stress, and a reduction in security personnel, such as school resource officers (SROs).

The report (Crime, Violence, Discipline, and Safety in U.S. Public Schools, based on a survey conducted every two years) found that 90 percent of public schools said they increased social and emotional support for students in response to the pandemic, and 49 percent of schools provided diagnostic mental health assessments to evaluate students for mental health disorders. Since the start of the pandemic, 70 percent of schools reported an uptick in students asking for mental health services. Thirty-eight percent of all schools provided treatment to students for mental health disorders (the same level as when the survey was conducted in 2017-2018), but 39 percent of schools noted that efforts to provide mental health services were being stymied by inadequate access to licensed mental health professionals and inadequate funding.

According to 2023 reporting from The Washington Post, U.S. schools are grappling with a dramatic workforce gap in mental health professionals. To reach pre-pandemic recommended levels, schools need 77,000 more school counselors, 63,000 more school psychologists, and tens of thousands more school social workers.

U.S. public schools recorded about 857,500 violent incidents and 479,500 nonviolent incidents in the 2021-2022 school year; 67 percent of schools reported having at least one violent incident. Physical attacks or fights without a weapon were recorded by 61 percent of schools, and attacks with weapons were recorded by 4 percent of schools.

About 71 percent of high schools and secondary schools reported at least one incident of distribution, possession, or use of illegal drugs on campus, and 34 percent reported use or distribution of alcohol. Cases of inappropriate use of prescription drugs fell sharply, from 34 percent in 2017-2018 to 18 percent in 2021-2022.

Threat assessment teams were present in more than two-thirds of public schools, although they were less common than in rural schools (54 percent vs. 71 percent in city schools). The vast majority of schools also had formal plans in place to prepare for and respond to active shooters (96 percent of schools), natural disasters (96 percent), suicide threats or incidents (94 percent), bomb threats (92 percent), and pandemic diseases (92 percent).

One notable change recorded in U.S. schools during the 2021-2022 school year was the effect social justice demands after the murder of George Floyd had on school policing. In 2017-2018, 45 percent of schools surveyed said they hosted law enforcement or SROs in their buildings at least once a week; by 2019, that had risen to 49 percent. But in the 2021-2022 school year, SRO use fell to 44 percent. This was higher than at charter schools (18 percent), although charter schools were more likely to have security officers or security personnel (35 percent vs. 25 percent at public schools).

Civil rights activists have been against having police in schools for years, arguing that they pose unacceptable risks to students of color, The Washington Post reported. After Floyd’s murder, major school systems in Minneapolis, Denver, and Portland canceled their contracts with police. The use of armed officers in schools also fell; in 2021-2022, 45 percent of sworn law enforcement officers and SROs in schools routinely carried a firearm, down from 51 percent in 2019-2020. However, some schools that dropped SRO programs entirely in 2020 have reversed course, such as in Denver.

In 2023, the Denver school board voted four to three to bring police back into schools, driven partly by a particularly violent school year, including a shooting, according to Chalkbeat Colorado. The decision enabled the superintendent to “promptly remove” SROs who don’t follow district policy or best practices, however, and it requires school district to monitor how many times SROs ticket or arrest students to monitor for disproportionate effects on marginalized students.