Child Health, Wellbeing and Safety in Schools Requires All of Us

Originally published in

By Chris Sununu and Laura Kelly

As students streamed back into classrooms this fall, parents, educators, administrators and community leaders took steps to ensure that the new academic year would be a safe one, from enhancing campus safety features to incorporating interventions that address the overall health of all students. As governors, we too have prioritized the safety of schoolchildren in our states. It’s a vitally important mission – one that demands constant vigilance and new ways of thinking.

For too long, school policies presumed that providing for the safety and wellbeing of our kids begins and ends with the physical security of school grounds. Education in the 21st century necessitates that elected officials act to guarantee the holistic safety of every child, from physical safety to emotional safety. We must recognize that each day our children are balancing the demands of their academic workloads with their social and emotional maturation, while many face additional challenges at home and in their communities. At the same time, the rise of social media allows for bullying to continue outside of the school walls, away from educators’ watchful eyes. And we must recognize that society has stigmatized support services.

We can and must do better, which is why in New Hampshire we have adopted a Multi-Tiered System of Support for Behavioral Health. The system establishes a statewide social and emotional learning curriculum – the first of its kind in the nation – available to every educator across the state free of charge. The social and emotional learning curriculum teaches students how to balance their emotions and navigate stressful situations. Our state also has passed meaningful legislation to provide educators with training and tools that work to prevent not only violence but also addiction, suicide and toxic stress that is too common among our children.

In Kansas, we’re emphasizing the importance of community partnerships when it comes to promoting the health and safety of students of all ages. Last year, our state passed legislation allocating funds to allow school districts to participate in a Mental Health Intervention Pilot Program. The program creates partnerships between districts and Community Mental Health Centers to increase students’ access to counselors, social workers and psychologists. Through a unique model of a school liaison, community mental health center clinical staff are embedded in schools to provide initial assessments, treatment and case management year-round. The Kansas State Board of Education also operates an online Kansas Safe School Resource Center, which provides schools with free informational resources on bullying prevention, crisis planning and mental health and positive behavior support.

These innovations will go a long way to promote positive school climate and a sense of belonging for students and their families. Our work is not yet done, though. As members of the National Governors Association, we continue to engage in bipartisan dialogue and facilitate national discussions on the opportunities to promote child wellness and school safety. Progress necessitates that we engage in frank conversations that go beyond the immediate response to harden schools and address the harder work of supporting student social development, mental health and resiliency. We have to acknowledge the gaps and embrace the willingness to adapt our policies as needed.

Our individual efforts, while meaningfully providing for the safety of our kids, must not exist independently of one another – which is why we will continue to work with our fellow governors to better align our efforts in education, behavioral health, and public safety. State and local officials must work together to understand unique local needs and foster community buy-in, so as to engage each and every possible stakeholder. We need the continued support and participation of students, parents, teachers, coaches and other community leaders to ensure that the policies we develop work to meaningfully better the lives of students.

It is through sustained and diverse partnerships – from school lunchrooms to the halls of each and every statehouse – that we will provide our students with the confidence that their safety, health and wellbeing is the primary concern of our communities.

  • Chris Sununu is the governor of New Hampshire. Laura Kelly is the governor of Kansas.