How To Make Schools Safer Without Additional Physical Security Measures

Introduction and summary

On June 25, 2022, President Joe Biden signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA) into law, spurred in part by the tragic mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, one month prior.1 After years of failed attempts to pass gun safety reform measures, this law finally broke through the decadeslong stalemate on gun violence prevention to advance an agenda that grapples with the many facets of this national crisis, including a particular focus on the youth mental health issues plaguing the United States.

In addition to imposing gun safety measures, the BSCA addresses some of the root causes of school violence, particularly the need to improve school climate. Importantly, the law authorizes and appropriates funding for schools and districts to use for mental health services, out-of-school programs, and community-based supports rather than for “hardening” schools by, for example, adding metal detectors, access control devices, and armed security. In fact, the BSCA explicitly prohibits using funding to arm teachers or other school staff.

The law provides $1.24 billion to expand access to school-based mental health services and $50 million to help schools more easily bill Medicaid for those services. It also includes additional funding for two funding streams in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965: $1 billion for Title IV Part A to improve school health and safety and $50 million for Title IV Part B to improve access to out-of-school programming. Both funding streams can be used to support a variety of school- and community-based programs that align with the goals of the BSCA, giving states and districts significant flexibility in determining how to best use the funds in their communities.

Two specific ways that these funds can be used to improve the safety and climate of public schools include:

  • Expanding access to school-based mental health services
  • Investing in out-of-school and after-school learning opportunities

The BSCA is an important first step in addressing gun violence and holistically improving school safety. By directing substantial funding to addressing students’ mental health needs and improving access to out-of-school programs rather than to hardening schools, the law contributes to safer and more supportive school environments.

Safe schools support students’ emotional and mental well-being

School shootings and other forms of school-based violence are a paramount concern for students, parents, educators, and community members who are increasingly focused on how to improve the physical and emotional safety of schools. This focus on school safety has led to calls to “harden” schools through implementing visible physical security measures, such as adding metal detectors, employing school-based police, and even arming teachers.2 However, research finds that these efforts are ineffective and can decrease students’ sense of safety.3

Figure 1

Hardening schools also can be particularly harmful for students of color, students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ students, and other marginalized students.4 In fact, studies show that increased investments in school policing, metal detectors, and surveillance technology disproportionately affect students who are Black, Indigenous, or other people of color and can lead to increased suspensions, expulsions, and interactions with law enforcement that disrupt student learning.5

Instead of resorting to measures to harden schools, state and local leaders should prioritize creating physically and emotionally safe schools for all students. They can use the recently appropriated Bipartisan Safer Communities Act funding to holistically support the physical and mental health of communities and schools both inside and outside of the classroom, with a focus on developing solution-oriented options that create safer schools without infringing on students’ civil rights or disproportionately harming students with disabilities, students who identify as LGBTQ+, and students of color.

The COVID-19 pandemic, increased gun violence, and other sources of communitywide trauma have accelerated the country’s youth mental health crisis. In late 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health,6 and the U.S. surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, released an advisory on youth mental health to raise awareness of the challenges youth are currently facing as well as opportunities to better support them.7 Contrary to the dominant narrative, students do not become violent simply because they have mental health issues; research shows that the relationship between mental health and violence is complex and that the presence of a mental illness does not automatically predispose a person to violent behavior.8 This harmful narrative can create a stigma around mental health diagnoses and treatment.

Ultimately, addressing the epidemic of gun violence and school shootings in the United States will require reducing both the presence of guns in communities and young people’s access to them.9 This is especially important as firearms have become the leading cause of death among children and adolescents across the country.10 Until policymakers pass additional meaningful legislation to reduce access to guns, gun violence will unfortunately continue to be a problem with traumatic implications for children, youth, and communities. In the interim, however, it is imperative to also create safe and supportive school environments by prioritizing robust investments and smart implementation of policies that improve school climate. As states and districts receive funding through the BSCA, they can use these dollars to create safe, healthy, and supportive school environments by expanding access to school-based mental health services and investing in out-of-school and after-school learning opportunities.

Expanding access to school-based mental health providers

The increase in youth mental health needs has made access to mental health care even more important for students’ well-being and success in school.11 Research reveals school-based mental health services are a critical point of access to mental health care for students,12 particularly students of color, students from low-income families, and students with public insurance.13

Schools have insufficient access to mental health providers

Currently, 38 states and Washington, D.C., require schools or districts to provide counseling services to students. Twenty-one states and Washington, D.C., require school-based or school-linked mental health services for students.14 Yet, too many schools do not provide adequate access to school-based mental health providers such as school counselors, psychologists, and social workers. In fact, 14 million students attend schools staffed with law enforcement personnel but no counselors, nurses, psychologists, or social workers. Moreover, schools with majority-Black student populations are more likely than those with majority-white student populations to have more security staff than mental health providers.15

In addition, schools are woefully understaffed, based on provider-to-student ratios recommended by professional associations for school-based mental health providers—ratios that are seen as the baseline to ensure comprehensive high-quality services for students. In reality, most states do not meet the recommended ratios. In the 2019–2020 federal Indicators of School Crime and Safety survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, schools identified inadequate funding and inadequate access to mental health professionals as the two most common factors limiting the provision of mental health services for students.16

Figure 2

Funding opportunities in the BSCA

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act includes several grant opportunities to help improve access to mental health services in schools. The following four grant programs are exclusively intended to improve mental health access.

Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education): The BSCA appropriates $240 million over four years for Project AWARE, including $28 million specifically focused on trauma. Schools and districts can use the grants to improve students’ awareness of mental health issues, improve access to school- and community-based mental health services, and train school staff on responding to trauma and mental health needs. The grant program, which is run through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, funds partnerships between state education and mental health agencies to support local education agencies.

Recipients can use Project AWARE funds to implement a wide variety of evidence-based practices that best serve students in various local education agencies, including hiring more clinical staff to improve provider-to-student ratios. For example, New Hampshire expanded the implementation of its multitiered behavioral health prevention framework to additional districts, with a focus on supporting integrated school and community mental health.17 In Michigan, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe is collaborating with cultural healers to help students connect with their identities, which can improve student outcomes and increases resilience.18 The Tribe is also using grant money to hire additional school mental health providers and train educators, school staff, and community members on trauma-informed practices and mental health first aid.19

Mental Health Services Professional Demonstration (MHSP):20 The BSCA appropriates $500 million over five years for the MHSP program. Run through the Department of Education, this program focuses on increasing the pipeline of properly trained and fully credentialed school mental health professionals by supporting partnerships between institutions of higher education and high-need local educational agencies. To increase the quantity and quality of school-based mental health services, the MHSP program helps high-need schools hire supervised graduate students who are training to be mental health providers and supports increased training and professional development of existing school staff. Graduate students complete clinical hours in these schools and may have opportunities to be hired by the district after graduating. In Arizona, for example, the Peoria Unified School District is partnering with Arizona State University’s School of Social Work to create a social emotional learning program embedded in a multitiered system of support (MTSS).21 Social work interns placed in schools help to meet the social, emotional, and mental health needs of students that are beyond the scope of a classroom teacher.

School-Based Mental Health Services (SBMH):22 The BSCA appropriates $500 million over five years for the SBMH grant program, which is also run through the Department of Education. The program aims to increase the number of qualified mental health professionals providing school-based services in high-need districts. Funding helps improve recruitment and retention by providing incentives such as student loan payment, licensing reciprocity across states, higher pay, and mentorship programs. Unlike the MHSP program, recipients can also use SBMH grants to help retrain nonstudent and nonschool-based mental health providers so they may obtain a credential to provide services in a school setting. For example, Wisconsin is using funds to increase access to diverse school-based mental health providers in high-need districts by lowering barriers to recruitment of school-based providers and through the re-specialization of existing community-based mental health providers. The program will fund partnerships between districts and school counseling, psychology, and social work programs at state institutions of higher education.23

Medicaid billing improvements grants: The BSCA funding includes $50 million to address the issue of billing—a common barrier to providing high-quality, school-based health services. The money will flow through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, which will award grants to states to make school-based services more accessible by improving the administrative and systematic processes for billing Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). In practice, schools would cover the cost of clinical mental health services and bill Medicaid or CHIP for services provided to Medicaid-eligible students. This would help to ease the administrative burdens of the billing process for schools and allow more schools and districts to provide school-based services to all students.

Opportunities to support a range of student needs

In most schools and districts, school mental health providers already bear many responsibilities. At any given time, students have a range of mental health needs that require different levels of school-based supports and services. When community violence or other community trauma occurs, individual students can experience a variety of responses. However, due to the significant workforce shortages, many school mental health professionals are forced to practice within a very limited role, leaving many students without access to services. For example, in districts with inadequate ratios of school psychologists to students, these professionals spend most of their time on special education evaluations and services to ensure that students with disabilities have access to the free appropriate public education they are entitled to under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.24 These providers utilize their expertise to support students with disabilities and ensure that they receive an accurate diagnosis, appropriate services, and a high-quality education in the least restrictive environment. However, to meet the full range of students’ mental health needs, all students must have access to critical preventive mental health awareness, early intervention, and other mental and behavioral health supports they need to be successful. This is only possible when schools have sufficient financial resources to hire and retain a complete staff of mental health professionals and are supported by ongoing efforts to ensure a robust and diverse pipeline of school mental health providers.

Multitiered systems of support are a best practice for meeting the full range of students’ social, emotional, and mental health needs.25 School leaders, school-based mental health providers, and teachers all have roles to play in implementing MTSS in schools, although school counselors, psychologists, and social workers are uniquely qualified to lead and facilitate key pieces of implementation. Schools that use MTSS offer the following three tiers of support services according to need:

  • Tier 1 (universal) supports are provided to all students with the goal of establishing prevention activities and creating a positive environment. These may include mental health promotion, bullying prevention, social emotional learning supports, and building a positive school climate.
  • Tier 2 (targeted) supports are provided to small numbers of students with demonstrated need for early intervention or support services, such as group counseling.
  • Tier 3 (intensive) supports are provided to a few students who have the greatest needs for individualized supports, such as individual counseling and referrals to external partners.

Qualified school mental health providers should provide or oversee all services, although teachers often play an important role in delivering some Tier 1 supports in the classroom. In comparison, Tier 2 and 3 services are designed to be delivered by trained mental health providers. However, when schools do not have adequate ratios of school psychologists, counselors, or social workers on staff, their capacity to provide a full range of services to growing numbers of students is limited. In those cases, often only students in crisis or who need services as part of their Individualized Education Program can receive the full range of supports.

While teachers are eager to meet their students’ needs and help them thrive, the pandemic has amplified their responsibilities and increased the demands on their time.26 Ensuring that schools provide equitable access to psychologists, social workers, and counselors allows teachers to focus on student learning and enables full-time, school-based mental health providers to support in-class, universal mental health promotion activities for all students.

Although funding from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act will not allow all schools to hire full-time mental health providers, the substantial grant funding included in the law will help many states and districts increase their capacity for school-based mental health services by growing the pipeline of school-based mental health providers and training staff on supporting students’ mental health. In addition, the BSCA will make it easier for schools to bill Medicaid for mental health services.

The BSCA makes critical investments in 21st Century Community Learning Centers

In-school and after-school settings provide an opportunity to meet children and youth where they are and offer mental health services and referrals. In addition to resources for more mental health providers and staff support in schools, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act also includes funding that goes directly toward evidence-based programming and practices outside of schools that can help improve school climate.

The BSCA contains $1 billion in new funding for Title IV-A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and an additional $50 million in appropriations for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLCs) program.27 While recipients can use funding for Title IV-A of the ESEA for a variety of initiatives to improve school climate, the new funding for the CCLCs specifically supports out-of-school learning time, such as afterschool, before-school, and summer learning experiences for students and communities.28 A variety of stakeholders can access funding for CCLCs, including community-based organizations, nonprofits, faith-based initiatives, state afterschool networks, and local education agencies. The bill also contains specific language that the new funds for CCLCs should focus on programs that serve middle- and high-school students.29

Southeast Asian Young Men’s Group: An out-of-school learning program

Twenty-first Century Community Learning Centers funding can support a broad range of effective programming both inside and outside of the classroom and can be particularly impactful for communities with limited resources or students who are at risk of becoming disconnected from the school system. For example, the Southeast Asian Young Men’s Group (SEAYM) based in Seattle supports high school- and middle school-aged Southeast Asian young men—including Cambodian, Cham, Filipino, Hmong, Lao, Khmu, Mien, and Vietnamese—from refugee and immigrant families.30 The program utilizes project-based learning by assigning students to create and edit their own documentary films. For example, five program participants who are all children of Lao refugees created the film “Across the Mekong,” in which they interview their family members about their experiences as refugees and draw connections to their own challenges and successes growing up in the United States.31 Other projects have addressed personal challenges such as substance use and recovery, historical trauma, dismantling the model minority myth, and the effect of generational differences on parental relationships. Several SEAYM participants said they found the program helpful in developing deeper connections with their identity and community and noted that they found the program to be cathartic, self-validating, and empowering.32

Benefits of out-of-school learning programs

Afterschool programs and other out-of-school learning experiences are supported by an extensive body of research demonstrating that student participation in these programs is linked with an increase in academic achievement metrics and healthy life choices as well as a decrease in risky and problematic behaviors.33 These programs also save money for the communities where they operate—estimates show that for every $1 invested in afterschool programs, there is a $3 reduction in future costs by reducing crime and juvenile delinquency, improving student performance at school, and increasing children’s future earning potential.34

Afterschool programs are particularly effective in cultivating protective factors for adolescent youth—meaning that they encourage healthy behaviors and social development.35 There are two primary ways by which programs can foster protective factors for middle- and high-school aged students. The first is by offering protective support at a community level. Participating in afterschool programs gives young adults access to adult mentors and peers in a safe and supportive environment during the hours outside the school day when they might otherwise be unsupervised. Sustained afterschool programming helps young people to develop enduring positive relationships with caring adult mentors who can help them realize their potential through support, advice, encouragement, and friendship.36

Secondly, afterschool programs help develop protective factors among young people at the individual level that positively promote their health and well-being, including positive self-concept, self-regulation, problem-solving and decision-making, interpersonal skills, and belonging and connectedness.37 In an evaluation of 21st CCLC programs in Wisconsin, one study found that participating students experienced a host of improvements in school behavior, including being more attentive in class, having better attendance, coming to school more motivated to learn, and getting along better with others.38

The Afterschool Alliance, a national nonprofit organization that works with afterschool networks in all 50 states, provides resources and conducts research on how to increase the effectiveness of afterschool programs across the country.39 Erik Peterson, the senior vice president of policy at the Afterschool Alliance, has noted that one reason that afterschool programs are effective is because they are “intentional, deliberate, and continuous” in their programming, so that students get prolonged exposure to the resources they need.40 He also noted that “partnerships allow many licensed social workers, psychologists, and mental health professionals to be available at afterschool programs,” which provides students and families access to services and supports that complement what they receive at their local schools.41

Improving access and equity in afterschool programming

Despite their effectiveness, afterschool programs and other out-of-school learning opportunities still do not reach nearly enough students and communities who need them. These barriers in access and availability have been exacerbated by the pandemic, with a recent survey of 1,000 program providers across the country indicating that 54 percent had waiting lists—a significant jump from pre-pandemic rates.42

Recent reporting estimates that for every child enrolled in an afterschool program, there are three children on a waiting list to access programming—representing approximately 25 million children who are unable to access afterschool programs.43 This lack of access disproportionately affects students from low-income families, particularly Black and Latino students from low-income families.44 Many of the reasons families face barriers to enrollment for out-of-school learning time include accessibility, costs, and transportation.45 Another entangled problem is that the lack of availability and access to afterschool programs limits the ability of women to fully return to the workforce, which further complicates the ability to recruit and retain afterschool staff, creating a circular problem for many families.46

As states and local districts gain access to additional funding for afterschool programs, grant funding must be allocated in an equitable manner and go to organizations that may have not always received grant funding in the past. The goal is to ensure that organizations that look like the communities they serve and provide culturally relevant and specific programming can receive funding. One way that states and districts can meet that goal is by structuring their requests for proposals in a way that targets grant funding to desired recipients.

As a part of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding received through the American Rescue Plan of 2021, states were required to set aside 1 percent of funds for afterschool programs and 1 percent of funds for summer learning programs.47 Ignite Afterschool, the statewide afterschool network in Minnesota, worked with the Minnesota state legislature and governor’s office to require that 50 percent of the funding that the state received for afterschool and summer learning programs was reserved for community-based organizations that were equipped to provide culturally specific and relevant learning opportunities. 48 This meant that more than 50 percent of a selected organization’s board of directors and/or leadership and more than 50 percent of its staff reflect the groups that it seeks to serve.49 This requirement helped target many of the funds received by the state education agency of Minnesota to organizations led by staff who identified as Black, Indigenous, other people of color, having a disability, and LGBTQ+, and in turn, they were able to effectively serve these student populations.50

According to Kari Denissen Cunnien, the executive director of Ignite Afterschool, her organization was intentional in advocating that funding went to community-based organizations that provide culturally specific and relevant programming. As she explained, “When you map the resources of a community, it’s important to realize that children learn in expansive ecosystems and not just in school buildings alone.”51 Therefore, “activating and leveraging these spaces” is crucial.52 “Minnesota is very acutely aware of and affected by issues of racial injustice, and it needs to be called out how valuable community-specific learning spaces are for young people and their learning and healing.”53

As a result of how Minnesota structured its grant program, grant recipients for afterschool and summer learning programs reflect the broad and diverse communities of the state.54 For some organizations—such as the Mahkato Revitalization Project or Restoration for All Inc.,55 which serve Minnesota’s Indigenous and East African communities, respectively—this was their first time receiving federal grant funding. For other grant recipients—such as the Karen Organization of Minnesota and the Hmong American Partnership—the grant funds allow them to continue and sustain their work with refugee communities from Southeast Asia, including by helping their clients navigate the education system through the assistance of multilingual staff. 56

Read more on holistic approaches to gun violence prevention


Funding available through the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act enables districts to improve school safety by focusing on the mental health needs of students and contributes to addressing gun violence holistically without resorting to implementing more physical security measures. With billions of dollars in new funding, schools and districts can hire additional school-based mental health providers, support students experiencing trauma, and help students develop stronger relationships with their schools and communities. Investing in students’ well-being and emotional safety is a positive and evidence-based way to create the safe school environment that every student deserves.

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