Editor’s Note: Kai Koerber is a junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and founder of the Societal Reform Corporation, an organization dedicated to improving the mental health of students. Follow him on Twitter @KaiStoneKoerber. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
While we may never know why a young man decided to carry out a mass shooting at my high school – Marjory Stoneman Douglas – we do know that he was mentally unstable. In the weeks and months leading up to the tragedy, law enforcement officials received repeated calls, alerting them to the potential threat he posed.
And when he was a student, he also exhibited signs of being unwell. I would know – I was in his first period class. Every day, I would see him talking to himself, carrying his books (or, sometimes, nothing at all) in a plastic bag and dragging his feet. He would rarely engage in conversation with any of us.
In other words, there were warning signs, and collectively we either missed them or chose to ignore them. As we attempt to move forward, we must acknowledge our failures and search for solutions that avoid the repetition of such tragedies.
As we see an increase in mass shootings, suicide and depression, I have one solution I’d like to propose: incorporating mental health education into school curriculums across America.
There is already some evidence that mental health training programs can reduce school violence and improve student performance. Take Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco, where the introduction of a quiet time program – 15-minute periods of quiet in the middle of the school day – have resulted in increased school attendance, a reduction in suspensions and overall improvement in student grade performance.
San Francisco isn’t the only school system experimenting with programs that feature quiet time or meditation. A charter school in Philadelphia introduced a similar program and saw a 90% reduction in violence in only one year. And an elementary school in West Baltimore has implemented the Mindful Moment Room, where students who misbehave spend time reflecting on their misdeeds. The room has drastically reduced the number of visits students make to the principal’s office per year.
While many of these programs are in the experimental phase, there are positive indicators that they help address some of the critical issues with the American system of education – one built on competition, the best grades and the highest test scores.
This kind of competition inevitably leads some students to feel they are behind some of their peers. And in some cases, it may even lead to suicide. In the United States today, nearly 4,600 people under the age of 25 commit suicide each year.
While most students who experience feelings of insecurity, inferiority or depression do not commit suicide or carry out mass shootings, there is no denying that many school shooters have mental health issues that do not get the attention they deserve.
But the education system has other flaws. It tends to value academic perfection over personal growth and self-expression. Teaching students to memorize or how to take a test doesn’t provide them with the space to explore or give them the opportunity to learn the true meaning of leadership. Students understand that they cannot always take classes that they will enjoy. They have to take classes that are more heavily weighted to boost their GPA. Yet these classes require relentless effort and impeccable time management. And, more importantly, these classes rarely, if ever, give them the mental health training necessary to navigate life’s challenges.
In observing the Parkland shooter’s recently released cell phone video, we see both his blatant disregard for the principles of right and wrong and the cold and hardened manner in which he describes his heinous plan. While we may not have been able to prevent the school shooting, a diverse mental health curriculum might have enabled both students and faculty to accurately identify the shooter’s troublesome behavior and apply additional pressure on authorities to take action.
In the interest of being proactive, I’ve formed the Societal Reform Corporation, a non-profit corporation that will provide students, from kindergarten to grade 12, with a curriculum that teaches them how to positively and constructively channel stress, anger, tragedy and disappointment. It does so by providing mental health techniques that are scientifically proven to improve focus, provide stress relief and equip students with valuable tools to deal with conflict, ostracism and disappointment.
More specifically, the curriculum I am developing will provide a new experience for students that is centered around finding balance. It will include everything from lessons on the brain to breathing techniques, meditation, goal-setting, anger management and peer counseling. High schools may choose to integrate the mental health training curriculum as a required health class, while elementary and middle schools – which have a less structured day – can introduce these lessons when possible.
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No matter what, we cannot continue on our current path. If we begin to take steps to teach students how to balance the demands of the education system with their personal growth, we may be able to prevent the senseless killing of young people across the country.
We must begin changing minds to change the world.