Every day in my intermediate school district, teachers, educational assistants, school support staff and administrators come to work knowing they could get hurt.
Last year, we had 350 staff injuries due to student behavior. So far this school year, the number of staff concussions has doubled, with over 30 to date.
My school district serves about 1,000 of the highest-need students in Hennepin County. Nearly all of our students have severe and persistent mental health conditions. Many have experienced complex developmental and racial trauma. In their short lives, they have suffered great pain and deserve our compassion and the best therapeutic treatment possible. Yet, often they are in the classrooms of special education programs in our intermediate school districts, without access to that treatment.
Schools like mine have become the front line of the children’s mental health system. Public schools cannot sustain this effort. We were never designed to provide the equivalent of residential treatment services. Lack of clear policy and sustained funding have put my staff at great risk. I can no longer ensure their safety.
It is often hard to comprehend our reality for those unfamiliar with intermediate school districts.
I have students who assault our staff every single day, and students who are assaulted regularly in their homes and communities.
I have students who have been sexually abused and students who are the perpetrators of sexual assaults.
I have students who threaten to commit suicide during the school day and others who threaten to kill our staff. Some of them have access to weapons.
I have students who hear voices, who have psychotic breaks, who have no conscience.
I have kindergarten students whose behavior is so aggressive and disruptive they are placed in our schools at five years old after treatment centers have turned them away due to their aggression.
I have adolescents who are homeless and mentally ill and whose only safe place is in our schools.
I have students who have committed murder and students who have been trafficked.
I have students who threaten to blow up my schools. I lay awake at night wondering which one might actually do it.
I have a student who knocked a staff member unconscious and a student who sexually assaulted a teacher in the classroom. I have had staff with broken noses, broken jaws, and ruptured spleens. The students who cause these injuries, rightfully so, have remained in my schools because of their considerable special education protections.
I regularly transport students to the hospital via 911 because they are having an acute mental health crisis. They are rarely admitted and often they are back in my school the next day. Sometimes we cannot convince a parent, first responders, or even police that they need to be transported to the hospital.
Following several high profile school shootings, we often hear the lament that surely someone could have seen the tragedy coming. I suggest to you this is our collective opportunity to see a potential tragedy in our future and do something to prevent it.
As the superintendent of a school district that serves hundreds of critically mentally ill students every day, I do not want to look back and think I did not tell people we are courting a tragedy if this reality is not acknowledged and appropriate policy and funding enacted.
Right now, our legislators are negotiating which school safety measures will be funded. Things like threat assessments, trauma training, school-linked mental health grants, and safe schools moneys are on the table. We all have a responsibility to keep our schools safe.
The closing days of this session will determine whether Minnesota has met that critical responsibility.
Sandy Lewandowski is superintendent of Intermediate District 287 (Plymouth).