How did public schools get here?

It is weeks like these when I contemplate how public schools got to this state — where children are killed in school shootings, students’ mental health goes unseen and untreated, and teachers and other school staff act as crisis responders, often sustaining injuries themselves. What happened at Harrison Education Center in Minneapolis is indeed tragic. It’s an example of the unprecedented safety challenges that plague Minnesota’s most specialized schools.

On behalf of 11 Twin Cities school districts, Intermediate District 287 serves 1,000 of the highest-need students in the state. Many students have serious, untreated mental health diagnoses. At times, their behavior leads to injuries to themselves and to others. Last year alone, there were 350 staff injuries in my district. Sometimes it’s an acute mental health crisis or a suicide attempt. Sometimes it’s an unprovoked outburst or state of extreme dysregulation that turns assaultive. Sometimes there are serious threats to the school.

I lie awake at night wondering what might happen next. My greatest fears have already become the reality for some schools across the nation. Schools like Harrison and all of the schools in my district take every possible safety measure. School safety personnel and metal detectors are only a small part of the solution. We need funding to pay for the things that get at the root of the problem.

We need a robust continuum of children’s mental health support, including residential treatment options and psychiatric consultation. We need alignment between public schools and county services. We need resources and training for school staff to become more familiar with mental health issues and de-escalation techniques. We need schools that are prepared to meet the wide variety of needs and challenges that students bring with them every day.

How did public schools get here? A large number of Minnesota’s residential treatment programs have closed or are being forced to close in the near future. Existing mental health programs can turn away a student because of aggressive behavior. When we send students via ambulance to emergency rooms because of a mental health crisis, they are often back in school the next day. Juvenile corrections programs are not the place to serve students with mental health issues; this pushes students into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Where do these students go when they can’t be served by other systems? School.

Regardless of what students have done or the trauma they have experienced, schools remain open to each and every student. Public schools, and in particular intermediate school districts like mine, have become the front line of children’s mental health. School staff bring their best skills and incredible compassion to serving our students. But we can no longer serve the growing and unmet needs these youth bring with them to school without risking injuries or other tragedies we have seen recently.

My greatest responsibility as superintendent is safety. It is an enormous challenge, but one that must be owned by more than schools. Education can only happen in an environment that is safe. A school safety bill with resources to address this critically important safety issue is needed now. We cannot wait for another school tragedy to address it. I urge the governor and our Legislature to pass a bill that is a model for the country and allows Minnesota school districts to keep everyone safe.

That is not simply my responsibility; it is the responsibility of our entire state.

Sandy Lewandowski, of Plymouth, is superintendent, Intermediate School District 287.