In the U.S., most states require between 175 and 180 days of school and/or between 900 and 1,000 hours of instructional time per year for students, according to the Center for Public Education. With children spending that much time—and more, depending on before- and after-school activities and care—on school campuses, those campuses should be safe, nonviolent, and crime-free places for kids. But the headlines in recent years tell the grim story that school shootings have occurred with astonishing frequency in our nation. And research compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that, during the 2013–2014 school year, 65% of public schools reported that one or more incidents of violence had taken place, which translates to an estimated 757,000 crimes, or approximately 15 crimes per 1,000 students enrolled during that school year. School communities are not immune to other traumas, either—such as floods, hurricanes, and tornado damage. And, of course, there are many other types of crises that don’t make national news but loom large in the lives of many students in U.S. schools, including students who are homeless or food insecure, and students who suffer abuse or are dealing with the suicide or death of a parent, classmate, or teacher.

How do school librarians, teachers, and other school-related professionals help students in times of distress? And how do schools try to prevent violence from encroaching on their campuses? The answers are complex, and varied, and sometimes not fully formed. But such questions are front-of-mind these days for everyone who works with students. For this article, professionals from the Metro Nashville Public Schools district shared information with PW.

Setting the Stage for Safety

Though the federal government does not require school districts to have a crisis or emergency management plan, it strongly recommends that they create one. Most states and school districts do indeed have emergency management and response plans, and many states have legislation requiring such plans. According to the 2012 School Health Policies and Practices Study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 80% of school districts require schools to have a comprehensive plan that includes contingencies and provisions for students and staff with special needs. And following the guidance of multiple federal government agencies, more than 90% of school districts partner with local first responders to formulate their emergency plan. Schools can often receive grant funding from the federal Departments of Education and Homeland Security, as well as from their state and local district, to put an emergency management plan in place.

Specifics of school district plans can vary widely. School Resource Officers are often mentioned in news coverage of school shootings or other crises. In 2016, 42% of public schools in the U.S. stated that at least one SRO was present at their school at least one day a week during the 2015–2016 school year, as reported by the NCES. A school resource officer is a sworn, commissioned law enforcement officer who is armed, and is not to be confused with other types of security guards or personnel who may be on campus. Metal detectors and security cameras may be part of a district’s plan, as well as other structural or technological tools. In many districts across the country, teachers, staff, and students are now well-versed in practicing emergency preparedness with drills and reenactment scenarios.

The Librarian’s Role in a Crisis

The various divisions of ALA are discussing how to better empower members to be effective in times of crisis, but also during the recovery phase, according to Steven Yates, past president of the American Association of School Librarians. “Librarians and library workers for youth have always been in the business of responding, at all times, working with other professionals in the building like counselors and administrators,” he says. “The school library is not only a community safe space, but, literally, as we’ve seen on the news, it’s a safe space in times of crisis. The school library is a place to go and hide.”

When a crisis does occur, the school librarian is often seen as a leader in helping the school community address how to process, cope with, and heal from an event. “Recovery doesn’t have a set time frame,” Yates says. “You can’t put a clock on it.” He notes that librarians have been receiving some recognition of late for the role that they have been playing in helping in the response to and recovery from a crisis, all by virtue of their professional skill set. “We are a unique resource in times of crisis, because we can just continue to do what comes naturally to us, which is to make sure that teachers and students have the resources they need as they process through and recover from traumatic events.”

Diane Chen, school librarian at Stratford STEM Magnet School in Nashville, and a member of AASL’s executive committee, spoke about the emergency management steps her district, Metro Nashville Public Schools, has taken. “We have a Crisis Aftercare Response Event team in our district,” she says. The district has a policy regarding the procedures for contacting the CARE team, which also stipulates that the team will include one of the mental health professionals (counselor, social worker, or psychologist) in the school who has received training in post-crisis counseling. The policy is reviewed annually by administrators and updated as needed. “When an incident happens, there is a measured, planned response,” Chen says. For meetings among CARE team members and students and/or teachers, Chen notes, “They often use the library because it is an area of care, and all the students in the school are familiar with the library and the librarian.”

In her role responding to the crisis, Chen says she may provide writing materials and have students write about their feelings, or have them create something in her library’s makerspace. “Sometimes my kids fill out sympathy cards, or they have learned how to write letters to the families impacted,” she explains. “And sometimes the library is just a space where a student can come and be with another caring adult, whether it’s the counselor, psychologist, faculty member, librarian, or administrator. The students know that we will connect them with whomever they need.”

Chen says she is grateful that such a policy is in place, and that the CARE team’s services are available to faculty as well as students. “Our district does an amazing job, because we have such a diverse student body,” she says. “There are so many incidents that could happen, it’s important to have a team available.” On a more personal note, Chen explained how she has worked with the team to meet her own needs. “Even when an incident is over, its impact lasts long past the time that the crisis team visits,” she says. “There are long-term effects. Sometimes we need to get together as a group to support each other. One of my library student volunteers was killed this year, and every once in a while I find myself turning to talk to her and she’s not there. So having the crisis team and having people who are here in the school every day and throughout the district, it’s important that they can come together.”

Social and Emotional Learning

Though preparing for or coping with a crisis at school has become a more common practice, many schools and school districts also actively take steps to prevent some violent and traumatic events from happening in the first place. This long view involves creating a safe and nurturing school environment that helps develop students who are not only academically successful, but who are also capable of understanding their emotions and managing impulses, and establishing positive relationships, which can stem conflict and violence. There are many approaches that schools and districts can employ to do this, but a comprehensive framework of strategies for creating this kind of school environment is formally organized under the movement known as social and emotional learning (SEL).

The history of the term dates back to 1994, when psychologist and author Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence) and other like-minded and entrepreneurial individuals cofounded the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning as a research organization. The goal of the group was, and still is, to establish “evidence-based social and emotional learning as an essential part of preschool through high school education,” according to the CASEL website.

SEL centers on five core competencies (see sidebar, p. 28) that help children, and adults, acquire the skills they need to understand themselves and each other on an emotional level, as well as set and achieve positive goals, feel and demonstrate empathy, and make responsible decisions. In a 2016 nationwide survey of teachers, CASEL revealed that 88% of teachers report that SEL occurs in their schools on some level, and 44% say SEL skills are being taught on a school-wide basis. And, according to the same study, more than three-quarters of those teachers believe a larger focus on SEL will be a major benefit to students because of the positive effect on workforce readiness (87%), school attendance and graduation (80%), life success (87%), college preparation (78%), and academic success (75%).

CASEL Research and Collaboration

In 2011, CASEL researchers published a meta-analysis of more than 200 K–12 social and emotional learning programs and found that SEL participants demonstrated an 11 percentile–point gain in academic achievement as compared to a control group not exposed to SEL. According to the study, kids who participated in SEL also exhibited improved behavior in the classroom; better attitudes about themselves, others, and school; and improved skills in managing stress and depression. (A 2017 meta-analysis of follow-up assessments shows that school-based SEL interventions continue to benefit students for years. An average of 3.5 years after the intervention, the “academic performance of students exposed to SEL programs was an average 13 percentile points higher than their non-SEL peers.”)

That same year, the researchers made a concerted effort to bring their methods into the field. “They said it’s fine to be in our ivory tower talking about how important SEL is, but we really need to get into the classroom,” says Pamela Randall-Garner, CASEL senior staff adviser. To that end, she says, the Collaborating Districts Initiative, which focuses on large, complex, urban school districts, was launched in 2011 with Anchorage, Alaska; Austin, Tex.; and Cleveland, Ohio, school districts as the first three locations to come on board. Five additional school districts joined CDI in 2012, including Metro Nashville Public Schools. “I’m happy to report we’re now up to 20 districts since 2011,” says Randall-Garner.

From its inception, SEL was “a movement to say that we cannot just focus on academic development of children from pre-K–12th grade,” Randall-Garner says. “If we’re going to have a high-quality education for every single child—and we mean every child—we have to marry the research that we know with the teacher practice.”

School districts apply to participate in the CDI and, if they are selected, receive a multi-year grant to help implement SEL in all areas of their schools, building it into strategic plans and budgets as well as into classroom instruction methods. “We need to work collaboratively with central office leadership starting with the top: superintendents,” Randall-Garner says. CASEL then partners with senior district leadership to make sure that these SEL competencies are happening in “every single school, every single classroom for every single child,” she adds. “But the reality is if the teachers and the principal and the parents and the students in the schools don’t see the value of this implementation, it’s dead in the water.”

Once SEL implementation takes root, what does success look like? According to Randall-Garner, “We see students more engaged in school and in after-school activities, coming to school every day, and taking control of and responsibility for their own learning. We see students who are treating each other kindly and are able to manage their emotions appropriately, as well as students who are not participating in risky behavior like smoking, drinking, or violence. They are focused on improving their learning as well as their fellow students’ learning.” On the whole, she adds, “when districts are creating communities of learners where there’s respect, self-awareness, responsible decision-making—that’s the success.”

SEL Snapshot: Metro Nashville

Randall-Garner’s work with schools follows the CDI model, which pairs her with SEL specialist and senior adviser for practice Eric Schaps. As a team, they make monthly visits to CDI school districts including Metro Nashville, which serves 86,000 students, 70% of whom are considered economically disadvantaged. As a result of the significant growth in the number of immigrants to Nashville over the past decade or so, the MNPS district also sees more than 140 languages spoken by the students in its 168 schools, and 32% of MNPS students speak a language other than English at home. Since Metro Nashville’s participation in the CDI began six years ago, Kyla Krengel has held the district leadership position of director of social and emotional learning for MNPS. And CASEL has her back. “We are there to support Kyla in every aspect of her job,” Randall-Garner says.

Krengel says that much of her job involves training others, whether it’s with entire faculties or smaller groups, either at schools or at a central location in the district. She and her team have created a district-specific workshop called SEL Foundations. As part of that training, “we look at where we are as adults with the five core competencies because we truly believe that it starts with us, and that we have to be modeling these skills and teaching them before we can expect our students to deliver it,” she says.

One of Krengel’s main points of focus has been helping the district incorporate SEL into its academics. “We are collaborating with our curriculum and instruction department to really help our teachers and administrators understand how to effectively integrate SEL into academics.” That issue is key, she says, “because in our view, SEL is not a standalone. It should be embedded in everything you do throughout the day.” Another important part of integrating SEL is ensuring that everyone is on the same page as far as how to handle the discipline of students. “We look at a restorative discipline approach,” Krengel says.

To gauge whether the district’s SEL training is working, Krengel says her department worked with CASEL consultants Randall-Garner and Schaps as well as MNPS’s resource and assessment department to create a walk-through rubric. “We need to be in the school to see how it is doing,” she says. “We thought, ‘What would we want to see, hear, feel when we go into a particular school?’ ” The rubric covers three main areas, she says:

1. Overall climate: How are SEL representatives greeted upon entering? What do they notice about teachers’ interactions with other adults and with students, and about students’ interactions with other students and with adults?

2. Academic integration: How is SEL integrated into the classroom? How explicitly is SEL being taught? Are the students collaborating? Are they reflecting on academic as well as SEL skills throughout the lesson?

3. Classroom environment: Are the rules of the classroom clear and explicit for children? Is the overall classroom environment positive and welcoming, and does it allow—physically—opportunities and space for students to collaborate, or are they just sitting in rows with no opportunities to turn and talk?

Based on their observations during a school walk-through, Krengel and her team share the information with the principal and then work with the school’s faculty to evaluate the results, then have them create their own action plan to focus on what needs to be improved.

A crisis prevention team is also part of MNPS’s SEL efforts to support schools. “We did have a shooting on a school campus this year, on a Friday,” Krengel recalls. “A group of us spoke throughout the weekend about what we needed to put in place to support the school on Monday morning. We also look at what’s going on in the community. How can we help parents, community members, students? It needs to be a full community approach.”

All the SEL professional development training in MNPS now addresses trauma, as well. “We have added a trauma component and we have a trauma coordinator in my department,” Krengel says. “That’s allowed us to really look at the why—why this work is so important. So many of our students are coming to us experiencing things that we don’t even know about. And so it may be something I say or something I do that’s a trigger. How do we support our students and our families who are going through traumatic events? That’s why it’s so important to have things in place at the prevention level.”

Chen points to another preventative measure being taken in the MNPS district: “One of the exciting things that’s been happening is that we’re working with nonprofit children’s advocacy group Tennessee Voices for Children, and they are willing to come and do mental health screenings in schools,” she says. “It’s an opt-in program, and they send out letters to the parents who consented to have the screening performed to alert them if there are any issues that could benefit from treatment.” She notes that, so far, the program has been well-received.

The extensive SEL training being done in MNPS takes time, effort, and patience, especially because it’s not easy for people to embrace change. Six years in, not all schools in the MNPS district are at full SEL adoption yet. But training continues at full tilt, and progress has been seen in the data from Krengel’s walkthrough rubrics as well as in other stats from the district, including significant drops in suspension and expulsion rates.

From June 27–29, MNPS and Alignment Nashville (an organization that aligns community resources for the menial, emotional, social, and academic success and wellbeing of Nashville’s youth) cohosted the 2018 Music City SEL Conference, which featured more than 90 workshops from educators and SEL experts from around the country. The 923 attendees represented 39 states and included international participants from Canada, Jordan, and Japan.

If educators and administrators are not able to travel to conferences like the one in Nashville, they can look to CASEL for guidance and for its recommended resources for any school or district that wishes to adopt SEL. The programs included in the CASEL resource guide are also used by CDI schools. For example, Open Circle, a program of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, provides an evidence-based SEL curriculum and professional development for elementary schools. Krengle says she provides teachers in her district with Open Circle’s list of Top 25 children’s books that connect to SEL, and the Open Circle website also offers a variety of other children’s booklists on various aspects of SEL. As another avenue to explore, PW has created a list culled from publishers’ submissions of their top SEL-related titles (see

Looking Ahead

“If we were to sum up SEL in one word, it’s relationships,” Krengel says. “We want everybody—kids, adults, parents, administrators, staff, community members—to feel that, when they walk into a school building, they belong, they are significant, and they’re connected to that school. We are focusing on building those relationships so that everyone is able to have their needs met. We all need these core competencies to be successful, and we need our students to learn that it’s a balance between being able to communicate effectively with somebody and knowing the academics that will help them succeed in life.”

Though CDI is focused on large urban districts, Randall-Garner emphasizes, “SEL, of course, is not just for large urban districts. Every organization that employs adults, every school district, every community wants citizens that are going to be caring and involved, and are going to demonstrate these life skills. That’s why we feel this is imperative, that education cannot just be about academic achievement—it has to be the holistic look at what is a well-functioning citizen for a well-functioning society.”

Yates believes that librarians are at the heart of SEL. “Librarians demonstrate pieces of social emotional learning all the time,” he says. “But unless they are in a community that recognizes and endorses SEL, they don’t always know to call it that.” He stresses that librarians are an invaluable resource for SEL: “having a library that is well-resourced and has a skilled certified librarian in place provides a level of service that you can’t necessarily put a price tag on.” That ideal scenario, he adds, “greatly enhances the quality of life and allows you to respond not just in the short term but in the long term to tragedy, violence, disaster, however it occurs.”

Chen concurs. “Librarians are really great connectors,” she says. “We connect our students to people and the things they need, whether it’s the knowledge, the services, or the care. And I think that’s why we do so much of SEL just naturally as librarians.”