School Climate & Safety

Should Schools Be Able to Detect Every Would-Be Shooter?

By Stephen Sawchuk & Arianna Prothero — November 15, 2019 | Updated: November 18, 2019 7 min read
Students are comforted as they wait to be reunited with their parents following the shooting at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., that killed two and injured several others.

Though many details remain in flux about the tragic shooting at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., the most critical of all remained unanswered late Friday: What provoked the violence?

Two students were killed and three others wounded in the early morning shooting on Nov. 14 at the 2,400-student high school in the Los Angeles suburb. The shooter, who police say turned a .45-caliber handgun on himself after shooting five classmates within 16 seconds, died Friday night, authorities said.

The initial portrait of the 16-year-old assailant suggests that he showed few outward signs of distress. He was involved in Boy Scouts, had a girlfriend, worked attentively on group projects with other students, and was a member of the track club, according to local news reports.

In other words, unlike the great majority of school shooters, he does not appear to have given off many warning signs that school personnel could have acted on.

The implications of that are sobering. While there is never a foolproof way to prevent violence on campuses, many elements of the current school-safety debate—in Parkland, Fla., for instance—center on districts’ botched responses to students who may present clear signs of trouble.

But what can districts and schools do when the signs aren’t as obvious? How can they know what the holes or weak spots are in their mental health and counseling systems?

“It is relatively rare for kids who commit violent acts or kids who harm themselves for no one to have thought, ‘that kid is in trouble,’” said Kathleen Minke, the executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists. “In my experience, kids themselves are the ones who can most often recognize another kid in trouble, and that’s why it is so important to build trusting relationships between kids and adults at school, to build communication systems so that kids feel comfortable talking to an adult when they have a friend or an acquaintance who is in trouble.”

But most students—no matter how troubled—will never become violent, much less school shooters. “It can be very difficult; we have to tread a very fine line between demonizing students who have had adverse childhood experiences and defining them by those experiences and making sure that they have the support they need,” said Deborah Temkin, the senior director of education research at the Bethesda, Md.-based Child Trends.

“The vast majority of kids who have had adverse childhood experiences are not going to become school shooters, are not going to become violent, and we have to be careful not to demonize those with mental health issues or trauma for the sake of trying to prevent these things from happening,” Temkin said. “That said, I think if we make sure we are providing support for all students and trying to create those safe and supportive environments that make sure that every student feels connected to their school, we are much less likely to see these things happen.”

A Robust Safety and Climate Plan

In the William S. Hart Union High School District, home to Saugus High School, safety planning documents indicate a district that, at least on paper, had attempted to put safety and mental-health protocols into place.

It had instituted lockdown procedures, and most students interviewed on local broadcast media mentioned having practiced them. It has assembled a threat assessment team—a risk-management approach to school safety recommended by the U.S. Secret Service.

And as part of its complement of 80-plus school support personnel, it reported tapping specific counselors to “diffuse aggression, address isolation, and tend to mental health needs of our students and families,” according to its most recent accountability plan.

“It’s really nice that the district, at least on paper, is taking all aspects of student wellness seriously,” Temkin said. “We don’t know how it’s being implemented, and we don’t know whether those resources were fully available.”

Flowers and cards in front of Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., in the aftermath of the shooting that killed two students and injured several others, including the alleged student gunman.

A district can be doing all the right things, and a tragedy can still occur, she noted.

“It has to be stressed that just because you are implementing programs or strategies to address whole-child wellness, it doesn’t mean that you can’t have an incident happen,” she said. “I think that is often forgotten: You can do everything right, and still have a tragedy happen, which may be the case here. It just means that there were other risk factors involved that weren’t addressed.”

So far, authorities have released no information about the suspected shooter’s state of mind or mental well-being.

In a recent analysis of 41 incidents of school violence, the U.S. Secret Service found that every single attacker had at least one major “stressor” in their life.

For a majority of them, that included in their family life, an area law enforcement officers were still exploring late Friday. While much is still unknown about the 16-year-old assailant’s circumstances, his father had died two years ago. The Associated Press reported that, in 2015, his father was arrested on suspicion of domestic battery.

It was not clear how that allegation was resolved, or if it played any role in the student’s overall state of mental health or motive to shoot classmates and himself.

“We can’t presume that just because a child has had an adverse childhood experience that they are going to experience trauma from it,” Temkin underscored. “And that makes it difficult for us to say just because this student’s father died that he is experiencing some sort of adverse reaction to it. We don’t know.”

The experts also pointed out that mental health supports aren’t just vital as part of a prevention effort, but also when the unthinkable occurs.

“Those teams, when they are really integrated into the school community, they will be there long after the cameras have gone away… kids are still suffering, teachers are still suffering, for years after these events,” summed up Minke.

The fallout from the tragedy does seem poised to put a renewed focus on schools’ mental health systems, and how they stand to complement and strengthen safety programs. In most of the nation’s public schools, robust mental health supports are rare.

Here are some key facts about schools and student mental health that educators need to know.

Many students face mental-health challenges.

Student mental health issues have been on the rise, say experts, and schools have struggled to keep up with those needs. Here’s what we know about some of the mental health issues that students—teenagers in particular—are grappling with:

• Among adolescents, 32 percent have an anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

• Among 12 to 17-year-olds, 12 percent say they have experienced one major depressive episode in the past year, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

• Among 15- to 19-year-olds, suicide rates have increased by 76 percent between 2007 and 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

• For 10- to 14-year-olds, the suicide rate has nearly tripled over that same time period. While suicide is still relatively rare among teenagers, it is the second leading cause of death for that age group after accidents. Homicides rank third.

Most states, including California, have fewer mental-health professionals than recommended.

States’ ratios of counselors, school psychologists, and social workers tend to fall far below professional recommendations, according to an analysis of federal data by the American Civil Liberties Union. (The data is based on the U.S. Department of Education’s 2015-16 civil rights data collection, the most recent available.) For example:

• The National Association of School Counselors recommends one counselor for every 250 students. The national ratio is 1 to 444; California’s is 1 to 682.

• The National Association of School Psychologists recommends one school psychologist for every 500 to 700 students. The national ratio is 1 to 1,382; California’s is 1 to 998.

• The School Social Work Association of America recommends one social worker for every 250 students. The national ratio is 1 to 2,106; California’s is 1 to 6,132. But the shortage of resources for children’s mental health isn’t limited to schools, it’s a communitywide problem, said Minke.

“Children are woefully underserved in our mental health system,” she said. “Typically, when they do receive them it’s those that are available to them in schools.”

About 20 percent of students face significant trauma, but “trauma sensitive schooling” is still in its infancy.

Roughly a fifth of students face two or more adverse child experiences, or ACEs, according to a recent federal survey. This can include abuse, divorce, the death of a parent, and multiple other factors, and they are linked to longer-term problems in health, education, and socialization.

Prompted by federal guidelines, a spate of natural disasters, and better understanding of the effects of toxic stress, schools are trying to institute trauma-informed practices. But few comprehensive approaches have been tried or evaluated rigorously for evidence of their effectiveness.

Assistant Editor Denisa R. Superville contributed to this story.

An alternative version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2019 edition of Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2019 edition of Education Week as Detecting Would-Be Shooters Vexes Schools

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