School Climate & Safety Opinion

School Shootings: Mental Health Matters

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 22, 2013 4 min read
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Three of the deadliest American school shootings were at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Virginia Tech, and Columbine High School. Another shooting occurred yesterday in at Sparks Middle School outside of Reno, Nevada. No part of our nation is safe from this horror. In an address to a national gathering of police chiefs, ironically, also yesterday, Eric Holder called out an alarm about the rise of active shootings since 2009 and the need for new strategies and a national response.

Three of the shooters connected to the deadliest school shootings had documented histories of emotional challenges. Stop the Shootings reports that Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter,

had been diagnosed with and was treated for a severe anxiety disorder in middle school and continued receiving therapy and special education support until his junior year of high school. While in college in 2005, Cho had been accused of stalking two female students and was declared mentally ill by a Virginia special justice.

Eric Harris, one of the Columbine shooters, is reported to have complained of depression, anger and possessing suicidal thoughts” in one of his meetings with his psychiatrist. Both Harris and Klebold, the other Columbine shooter, kept journals recording their plans.

The pair hoped that, after setting off home-made explosives in the cafeteria at the busiest time of day, killing hundreds of students, they would shoot survivors fleeing from the school. Then, as police vehicles, ambulances, fire trucks, and reporters came to the school, bombs set in the boys’ cars would detonate, killing these emergency and other personnel.

Adam Lanza, the Newtown Elementary school shooter, was reported as “intelligent, but nervous and fidgety. He avoided attracting attention and was uncomfortable socializing. He is not known to have had any close friends in school.” In all three cases, there were red flags raised. Still, tragically, the shootings happened and lives were lost.

Mental health issues have long been on our leadership radar but these shootings have made it a new level of priority; one that exists in the larger context of mental health issues. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 1 in 4 Americans suffer a diagnosable mental illness in a given year and that 60 % of people with mental health issues do not receive treatment. In May of this year, the US Center for Disease Control released its first study of mental health in children. Entitled Mental Health Surveillance Among Children, 2005 - 2011, the report concluded that, “Childhood mental illnesses affect up to 1 in 5 children between the ages of 3 and 17and cost $247 billion per year in medical bills, special education and juvenile justice.”

What is our role in advocating for mental health services? This was always a question but, frankly, as we absorb the violence that confronts us, the question is morphing. Now, we must ask how do we join forces with others to keep our children healthy and safe?

We have children in our schools with mental health challenges. Many are identified because of what we observe as they play, learn, speak or interact. Some are identified in early childhood; other illnesses develop later on in adolescence or young adulthood. Most can be treated or managed. Many are not. But, as with all illnesses, they cannot be ignored without concern that they will become more severe. There is no denying that we have children who are withdrawing, into the shadows, and, then, are erupting in violence.

There are certain things for which all parents hope. They hope for their child to be safe in our schools and they hope we help them grow into adults who fulfill their dreams. Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung often told her daughters to “be safe” as she sent them off. Dawn was an educator and became an elementary school principal. Keeping the children safe was at her core. It must have been in her mind and on her heart when Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary school on December 14, 2012. Dawn ran from her office into the hallway. The school psychologist was at her side. They rushed at him to save the children. He fired. Both women lost their lives. We all know how the rest of that day’s tragedy unfolded.

It had been an ordinary morning in Newtown. The faculty and staff expected an ordinary day. We suspect the same was true for the faculty at Sparks Middle School. But days don’t always play out as we anticipate. On Monday, a member of that faculty gave his life to protect the children. He joins those from Sandy Hook as a profile in courage. Most of us will never face a day like this but we do not know when or where the next act of school violence will take place. We were not prepared to work in violent environments but they have come to us. So now, we wrestle with how to prepare for this new reality.

In the midst of implementing the Common Core, the state assessments and evaluations and ratings for yourselves and your colleagues, we cannot forget the core that motivated Dawn Hochsprung and the others. If we want to keep our children, and ourselves, safe in school, it cannot be just the work of educators. We must join with mental health professionals, with law enforcement and with justice systems, with every parent and with community leaders ...and with the medical and scientific community...to make it happen. We all have a need for a society in which mental health issues can be discussed without fear and shame and where treatment is available for those who need it. We perceive ourselves to be a sophisticated society. We are in some terms rich. But, if we cannot keep our children, and the adults who serve them safe, what is it all for?

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NB: Ann has been appointed the Founding Director of The Esteves School of Education’s Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung Center for the Promotion of Mental Health and School Safety at the Sage Colleges.

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