CINCINNATI – What if the next school shooting could be stopped before a student pulled out a gun?
The question has grown more urgent for parents and educators in Greater Cincinnati after police say 14-year-old James Austin Hancock, a boy no one identified as troubled, opened fire on two classmates Monday at Madison Jr./Sr. High School in Middletown.
While the debate continues about whom, if anyone, should carry guns in schools to stop an assailant, schools are investing in mental health services they hope will identify and help troubled students before violence erupts.
"We don't need more metal detectors. We need more mental detectors," said Scott Poland, a psychologist and internationally known expert on school safety and youth violence.
Poland, who has served on the President's Roundtable on Youth Violence and has testified about the needs of children before the U. S. Congress on four occasions, said that mental health services are spread too thin at most schools nationally and are focused on other priorities like identifying learning disabilities.
Barbara Terry, Children's Home of Cincinnati chief operating officer, said that Greater Cincinnati also needs more social workers and child psychologists to meet unmet need.
"We want to serve every child in need. We run out of staff, too. You only have so many people to go around. If everybody had insurance, would we be able to treat every child? No," she said.
A school's first line of defense against mass violence is prevention, and that starts with forging relationships between students and adults who can intervene if they see a student heading toward trouble.
Children's Home of Cincinnati provides mental health services to Cincinnati Public Schools and 34 other districts, funded through a family's health insurance or through Medicaid.
The spectrum of care goes far beyond simply looking for potentially violent students to help kids dealing with stress, depression or any number of long- or short-term issues.
But Children's Home and their partners nevertheless look for warning signs that students may be prone to act out violently.
"I think there are generally recognized risk factors associated with violent behavior," Children's Home Director of Mental Health Services Debbie Gingrich said. "We know things like a mental health diagnosis, substance abuse, an unstable living situation, a history of being abused are factors."
"We're not funded by schools or partners. We use a child's health insurance. My goal is to make sure that all their physical and mental needs are met," she said.
Cincinnati Public Schools has pioneered a system of operating community learning centers associated with its schools that provide mental health services as well as eye and dental clinics, tutoring, after-school activities and even daycare for students with young children.
"In general, we try to keep our finger on the pulse of what's happening in the community," Community Learning Centers Coordinator Julie Doppler said. "Sometimes people in the neighborhood can identify problems that we can address."
She said that collaboration among adults is key to keeping track of students' well-being and getting them help quickly. To that end, the community learning center convenes a meeting among all the various providers at least quarterly to compare notes on how students are faring.
If a student's mentor hasn't identified a problem, then maybe his tutor or doctor or even an art teacher or sports coach may be able to alert the group.
Building trust between students and adults in schools fosters good communication that can nip trouble in the bud.
"If there are adults there who students trust, who care about their hopes and dreams, those students are more likely to come to them when they've heard something," Poland said.
Poland said that nearly all school shooters fall into one of three categories:
- A psychopath who can't distinguish between right and wrong;
- A psychotic who can't distinguish between fantasy and reality;
- Someone who has been traumatized through physical or mental abuse, a suicide in the family or some other dramatic event.
Forming a threat assessment team is critical to taking appropriate action. The team typically includes an administrator, a mental health professional, a school or community police officer and a teacher.
Once a student or adult reports a threat or odd behavior, the team can snap into action to sort out serious problems from empty threats.
"The wisest decisions are made by a group of people," Poland said.
The added, crucial benefit is preventing innocent kids from having their lives derailed by one adult who has judged him or her too harshly, he said.
If a principal has an extreme dislike for a student who is more irritating than dangerous, a school resource office and a counselor together can impress upon the principal the need to prevent the principal from derailing the student's path toward graduation with an expulsion or long suspension, Poland said.
Poland said about two-thirds of students who opened fire at school had been victims of bullies. And two-thirds had felt suicidal.
It follows, Poland said, that schools can try to ward off violence by putting time and energy into suicide prevention and anti-bullying programs and campaigns.
Doppler said resource coordinators employ data to spot when a student is in trouble. A drop in grades, a series of detentions or a spike in missed school days will prompt further investigation.
Angela Campbell Harris, resource coordinator at Western Hills University High School, said her focus is on getting to know students better.
Every day since the school year began, a teacher meets with a group of about 15 students to talk about things like their college and career goals and how to achieve them.
"But they also spend time getting to know students, forming relationships."
By getting to know students more intimately in these smaller groups, teachers can pinpoint problems that students are having and direct them to mental health or other services.
"I think it's working very well, and I think we have a lot in place. But you always worry that you might miss one," Campbell Harris said. "We have 1,100 students."
She dreams of finding a volunteer mentor for every student at the 7-12 grade magnet school.
"One-on-one mentoring for every student: wouldn't it be wonderful? That would be something," Campbell Harris said.
Asked about what could be improved regarding mental health services, Gingrich said that she would like to see all children insured – either through private insurance or Medicaid. Without insurance, families usually can't pay for the mental health services available to them.
How students react to stress and confrontation is critical, and Doppler said community learning centers try to help give students the skills to resolve conflicts peacefully.
"Some of the strategies that I think are very important at the district level are building confidence and self-esteem. We have to have rules and regulations, but you have to build skills of conflict resolution," she said.
Doppler wants to expand peer mentoring at schools since students are likely to know what's going on in other students' lives better than teachers and staff.
She said the community learning center model is helping and, because it involves using outside partners and funding, is something that can be replicated in one form or another just about anywhere.
"I think we've been able to intervene with students in trouble. I have heard from schools where students have said, 'I'm really depressed today' and we're able to get them into a collocated mental health partner or school psychologist," she said. "You don't know what you don’t know, but from a prevention standpoint we feel like we're identifying kids."