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Mental Health and Safety in Schools

Following last week’s school shooting in Parkland Florida, school administrators, teachers, and parents nationwide will once again try to determine additional ways to increase security, and protect the students in their schools. Since the Sandy Hook shooting in December 2012, schools have endeavored to take every security measure possible to ensure safety. Security is of utmost importance but addressing the emotional needs of students is of equal concern. Administrators and teachers often encounter students, and parents, with mental health issues. Most administrators have experienced students who have violent outbursts, or have even experienced threatening behavior from students and parents. Identifying individuals who pose a potential threat is extremely necessary to ensure the safety of all. What becomes even more disturbing, in the case of this most recent shooting, is that the school did just that, and the tragedy happened anyway.

According to news reports, Nikolas Cruz was first diagnosed with a mental illness of some type at age 3. In subsequent years, he was diagnosed as developmentally disabled, autistic, ADHD, emotional disturbed and severely depressed. In recent years, he had suspensions, detentions, was sent to several alternative schools, and was eventually expelled. Other students and faculty were so concerned about his behavior that he was not allowed to carry a backpack into the school. In September of 2016, allegedly following his girlfriend breaking up with him, he posted on Instagram pictures of himself with cuts and talked of guns and weapons and killing animals. The Department of Child and Family Services, who was alerted to investigate, determined he was not a threat, “to himself or others.” He was not referred for any additional emotional support or inpatient treatment. A few months later, he walked into a local gun store, answered the questions about his own mental health, and legally purchased the AR-15 assault rifle that he allegedly used to kill students and staff at his former school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The local sheriff’s office reportedly made 39 visits to Cruz’s home in recent years when called about his violent behavior. The police department was noted to have received at least 20 calls. And tragically, the two very recent attempts to alert the FBI of Cruz’s behavior and ideology, (following an Instagram post in December that he wanted “to be a professional school shooter” and a January 5th call to an FBI tip line that he had weapons, killed animals, was violent and talked about shooting at schools) were never investigated.

In the next weeks and months, finger pointing among agencies and political divisions over gun laws in this country will continue. Horrifically, it will not bring back the lives lost, nor will this, unfortunately, be the last such episode of violence in a U.S. school. But beyond the politicians and the news stations all giving their own summations and opinions, how do schools, symptomatic of the problems in our society, continue to try to protect children?

The staff at the school felt that Cruz had a clear intent to harm. There is a process that most public-school systems must follow with a disturbed student, and the school staff followed the process. They alerted DCFS, local law enforcement, met with his mother, made referrals, etc. As a former school administrator, there are several ways I believe agencies could interact to help thwart the actions of an individual when there are this many red flags.

  • Have mental health experts on staff. When costs are cut in schools, often guidance and support programs are cut. With almost 20% of the U.S. population diagnosed with a mental health disorder, having a licensed social worker, certified guidance counselor, or school psychologist on hand is absolutely necessary. Additionally, school systems need to provide added support, when difficult cases arise.

  • Focus on the individuals, not just scores and standards. At a time when school testing and standards are the order of the day, teachers are graded and paid according to student performance, and administrators are constantly bombarded with the push for higher scores, testing, common core, exit tests, etc., standards cannot replace the need for all students to receive individualized attention. Administrators, counselors, teachers, and parents need to meet together to form an appropriate plan of action for a student in crisis. But that alone is not enough.

  • Support and transparency from other agencies is necessary. When the intervention of local law enforcement, DCFS, and other mental health counselors is needed, schools need answers. Certainly, students have the right to privacy, but schools have an imperative need to know of the mental health status and possible criminal background of students in their care. Agencies need to come together with the schools and put together all the pieces of the puzzle, before determining in isolation that a violent student is not a threat “to himself or others.”

  • Schools must be able to protect all in their care, even if that means they can no longer keep a potentially violent student in their midst. While those who choose education as a profession often are caring individuals that want to reach every student, it is important to sometimes realize that there may be a student in their school who is beyond their reach, with the resources at hand. When DCFS failed to refer Cruz for additional services and possible inpatient care in late 2016, and early 2017, school officials were reportedly very surprised. As those that saw the student regularly, they believed it was very clear that he did mean harm to others, specifically, others in their school setting. The school acted as it should, and when all other options were exhausted, and other agencies failed to act, the school expelled the student.

Tragically, we will never know if the murders of innocent classmates could have been prevented by the agencies who were supposed to help Cruz and protect others, because they failed all involved. Schools are not the problem in our society. They are only symptomatic of larger concerns in our nation. We protect teenagers by not allowing them to consume alcohol or buy a handgun before they are 21, but we fail to protect others by letting them legally purchase assault weapons. Schools are vulnerable, regardless of everyone’s best efforts at security measures. Real security at schools will require hard work from all mental health and law enforcement agencies, working together with the school to ensure the safety of all students. Schools can’t do this alone. “See something, say something” doesn’t work if no one is listening. Enough talk and finger-pointing, enough death in U.S. schools. It’s time to work together for change.