School safety experts, educators focus on mental health

Brian Farragher, of the Andrus Children's Center, talks Brian Farragher, of the Andrus Children's Center, talks about the need for mental health services for children after Newtown during a symposium at Manhattanville College. (Feb. 26, 2013) Photo Credit: Meghan Murphy

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Experts at a school safety symposium held Tuesday at Manhattanville College advised a crowd of about 200 educators to focus on helping normal children feel safe and on getting treatment for kids at risk of acting out psychological problems.

Frequently referencing the mass murder of 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the panelists said they are working with local police departments to increase police presence on campuses, build security infrastructure and practice lockdown drills -- all measures that give everyone a sense of safety, they said.

School leaders in the audience were skeptical about drills and policing, suggesting that the solutions to school violence lie in cultural change and providing mental health services.

"My belief about this is that you need to change systemically, not with quick fixes," said Kenneth Freeston, superintendent of Schools in North Salem and a resident of Newtown.

Brian Farragher, executive vice president of Andrus Children's Center -- a Westchester County-based nonprofit organization -- emphasized the need to understand and help children who are at risk of becoming violent because they've suffered in their own lives. He said focusing on one incident such as Newtown is counterproductive.

"What we end up doing in this country is that we focus on the physical violence. But it's the equivalent of fighting a fire with fans when the biggest problem is smoke," Farragher said. "Those of us who have the privilege of helping raise our children know what they need is somebody who believes in them, somebody who has hope."

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Michael Sellet, regional safety coordinator for the Putnam/Northern Westchester Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, recommended that the state fund school security improvements and require consistency in the way staff members are trained. He questioned why schools have cut social workers and mental health professionals.

"Why are we cutting our social workers? Those are the folks who are trained to recognize and deter violence," Sellet said. "We need funding, we need to have standardization and we need to get this done."

South Orangetown School Superintendent Kenneth Mitchell echoed the call for funding for mental health services in schools.

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"School administrators have identified where there are problems. We need resources from the greater community, and those resources are minimal. That's frustrating," Mitchell said. "There is evidence to show that when teens receive access to mental health services, their behavior improves, but we're not dedicating our resources to that need."

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