In a recent video with ATTN, rapper Vic Mensa makes the case for combating gun violence in schools with more therapists, not cops.
“Instead of adding more cops to schools where gun violence is the norm, how about we add therapists, counselors and other trained professionals who can help these kids survive their harsh realities?” he asks. “Because if you’re going to one of these schools, the mental health services that could put a student on the right path simply don’t exist.”
A former school-based therapist, I was fortunate enough to work at Philadelphia’s Freire Charter School, a 6-12 charter school network that offers free therapy to all enrolled students. Through community-school partnerships with graduate counseling and social work programs at local universities, every Freire student can access free individual and family counseling.
Collectively, our emotional support services staff had the capacity to serve 150 students, out of 250 students at our school.
Compare Freire’s counselor-student ratio to that of Harper High School, a school on the South Side of Chicago profiled by Vic Mensa. At Harper, there are 127 students, and one social worker. But because 29 students from Harper were shot in 2012, there are now seven police officers. This glaring disparity between counselors and cops is telling of our current education system’s outdated approach to violence prevention.
Hurting People Hurt People
In the aftermath of school violence, a quick fix like increasing the presence of school police officers does not address the most common underlying cause of violence: trauma. Policing is a reactive measure, not a systemic solution. This made sense to my students, so why not politicians?
At Freire, the theme of trauma spanned across of the counseling sessions that I conducted with students. Not only did all of my caseload identify as Black, but nearly each and every student also had witnessed community violence, or had been harmed by it directly. Consequently, our work around violence prevention touched on more than just the symptoms of PTSD. We talked about poverty and structural racism as trauma that give rise to violence—starting points of violence that the media often ignores and instead chooses to attribute to a “culture of poverty” or inexplicable “Black-on-Black crime.”
“Hurting people hurt people,” I told my students, when explaining rampant occurrences of school violence and community violence. I had to explain that this piece of wisdom was doubly true when an oppressed community becomes segregated, without the resources to address the trauma of their oppression. Sometimes there would be solidarity, and other times folks would take out their pain on each other. Therefore, it was a better choice to seek out one of the school’s therapist in response to bullying or violence from other Black students, than to strike back—and then continue cycles of recycled harm and oppression.
These conversations at the intersection of mental health, violence, and oppression are just one of many reasons why mental health literacy and therapy matters in all schools, but particularly those where socio-political circumstances often breed unsafe learning environments for students of color.
Walking the Walk
Fraud and corruption within the education system—an issue Vic Mensa has previously spoken on with regard to banning guns to prevent school shootings—is another reason why Mensa is shining light on the lack of funding for school mental health services, especially at schools serving mostly Black children. Mensa posits that resolving to ban guns in schools and fund school-based mental health services is simple, but self-interest tempts big lobbyists and other leaders away from prioritizing students and holding themselves accountable.
“In schools where at least 75 percent of students qualified for free- or reduced-lunch, 90 percent of principals admitted to using those funds for ‘professional development,’ which is to say, they didn’t go to mental health services,” Mensa reports.
Furthermore, Black children disproportionately attend the high-poverty schools where money is most frequently embezzled, and as Mensa points out, 55 percent of poor Black children who need mental health services don’t get them. Compare that to 40 percent of students overall. While these figures are definitely alarming, most schools actually do have the means to address this racial disparity in child mental health, but simply choose not to do so. A focus on trauma-informed learning is often an espoused value that isn’t practiced.
Fortunately, in my experience, administrators and teachers have walked the walk. They understood that a student in emotional distress is far better off attending therapy during class, rather than disengaging for the entire period. Yes, a student receiving counseling might miss a little instruction time, but at least there’s a chance that they’ll do their homework that night, or have the wherewithal to focus the next day. Some of my former students’ teachers even offered tutorials in lieu of missed class time because they recognized the value in my work to help students heal.
Still, it’s crucial that improved academic engagement and performance is not the only benefit considered. The survival and well-being of students at home, in their neighborhoods, and in other contexts besides schools, should be the top priority. When students of color living in poverty don’t receive mental health services, they’re more likely to drop out, join a gang, abuse or sell drugs, or attempt suicide. In other words, when our politicians and leaders misuse funds or devalue mental health services, they are complicit in perpetuating the structural violence and oppression that targets students of color living in poverty. Schools become sites of racial oppression instead of sites of racial healing.
Sadly, this sense of betrayal is what many poor students of color have come to expect, and most educators are too burned out to prove them wrong.
These Things Are Preventable
When I first began as a school-based therapist, I remember that most of my students seemed guarded and skeptical upon meeting me. Though I saw myself as an Black, equity-minded educator and counselor, they saw me as an Ivy Leaguer, first and foremost. Having ventured across the country to attend the University of Pennsylvania, a school that most poor kids in Philadelphia never step foot on, I seemed completely out of touch with their reality. Yet, because I understood the ways in which their schools had failed them and damaged their trust of education institutions, especially elite ones, I realized that they owed me nothing. If anything, I owed it to them to earn their trust. So, I got to work.
By the end of the year, students gave me high-fives in the halls, and casually introduced me to their friends, with no shame about seeing a therapist—and more importantly, no mistrust about the fact that I went to Penn. “You know Mr. Jeff? That’s my counselor, man. Oh, and he goes to Penn!”
The trust and respect between us made our school safer—it made our school a community where relationships played a role in preventing violence.
I will remember the names and faces of those students forever, and I hope that I made a lasting impact on their lives. By no means was I their savior. But I hope they remember how, for possibly the first time in their lives, an educator fought for them. When I see folks like Vic Mensa using their platform to lift up the work that forever changed me as an educator and education justice advocate, I can’t help but hope that our society is moving a little closer toward justice.
“This isn’t an inevitable consequence of growing up poor. These things are preventable. So let’s prevent them. Share this video if you believe poor kids deserve mental health care,” Mensa signs off.