It Takes More Than a Team

After the recent mass murders by disturbed teenagers with all-too readily available assault weapons, it’s hard to see a way forward given the dysfunction of our political system (though there is some bipartisan movement on federal legislation as of this writing). Short of federal gun regulation, there are other areas we can influence that could help to prevent troubled teenagers from making plans to hurt themselves and others.

There’s a debate that has flared up around mass shootings that over-simplifies the issues into gun control vs. mental health. Yet these both need to be part of the conversation. We need to decrease access to assault weapons, while increasing access to sustained mental health services.

A recent interview in Politico of two professors who study mass shooters has struck a very personal chord with me and helps point to structures we need to put in place, both within and beyond schools. Here’s two quotes that resonated with me:

“We need to build teams to investigate when kids are in crisis and then link those kids to mental health services. The problem is that in a lot of places, those services are not there.”

“It was none of these people’s jobs to make sure that he got connected with somebody in the community who could help him long term.”

After reading the Politico piece and the portrait of a teenager shooter they paint in the interview, I realized that I have worked with a student who had echoes of that profile.

Early childhood trauma seems to be the foundation, whether violence in the home, sexual assault, parental suicides, extreme bullying. Then you see the build toward hopelessness, despair, isolation, self-loathing, oftentimes rejection from peers. That turns into a really identifiable crisis point where they’re acting differently. Sometimes they have previous suicide attempts.

I’m going to tell you a little bit about this student, let’s call him Roberto (not his real name), and some of what my team did for him while he was with us. He came to our school in 6th grade and presented with academic gaps and frequent counterproductive behavior in the classroom, such as saying inappropriate things and not completing any work. He did not have an IEP, but the 6th grade team raised him as a possible referral, so I began digging into his previous educational data, speaking to his mom, and interviewing him to learn about what was happening.

In line with the profile from the Politico interview, he had experienced childhood trauma. He grew anxious in rooms with closed doors and in elevators. And his behavior at home with his mom was growing increasingly challenging, preceding the challenges that were beginning to show up in school.

After reviewing all of his data, student work, and speaking with him more in-depth, we had him evaluated by our school psychologist, and indeed he manifested with a learning disability and in need of social-emotional supports. We put in place ICT (co-teaching) services as well as counseling. Thanks to our great counselor, social worker, and parent coordinator, we also aided his mother in obtaining external counseling supports for him.

In the article, they say this about the typical teenage mass shooter:

What’s different from traditional suicide is that the self-hate turns against a group. They start asking themselves, “Whose fault is this?” Is it a racial group or women or a religious group, or is it my classmates? The hate turns outward. There’s also this quest for fame and notoriety.

Roberto’s targets for the most disrespectful behavior were his mother and generally his female teachers.

As I spoke with Roberto and learned more about his experiences, he shared that he was frightened by the level of work expected at our school, and he knew it was much harder, and he couldn’t hide that it was difficult for him from his peers. So he tried to make them laugh or think he was cool instead.

Talking with Roberto on his own was always insightful–he had a lot of potential, and we were up front with him that his potential didn’t match his current performance. He needed to ask for help and give himself a chance and use the supports his teachers offered him.

In 7th grade, he was making progress, but his behavior became especially challenging in math class. We put in place a more formalized Behavior Intervention Plan to further ensure aligned supports for him.

I left the school after that year, but I felt confident that Roberto would continue to make progress. With the supports we put in place, both school-based and externally, I knew he could be successful in high school if he continued to receive those supports.

A couple years later, I happened to find out he had later been arrested for threatening to shoot up his high school. This hit me hard, because it felt like we had failed him.

He didn’t, thank god, end up becoming another teenage mass shooter. He wasn’t able to acquire a gun, and his threats were reported and taken seriously. His story shows that not only is gun control critical in preventing heinous acts from occurring, but also the importance of ensuring continuity of care and support.

In my former school, he had a strong school-based team looking out for him. And while I don’t think his external therapy was consistent, we did check in with his mother on those supports as well. Yet when he went on to high school did he continue to get external therapy? Was his high school on top of the services recommended by his IEP? If we had still been with him in high school, would we have been able to surface when he needed help before he shut down completely and turned against his peers and torpedoed his future?

I’d like to think so. But it’s hard to place blame on a school I don’t know anything about. They may have provided him an environment of care. They may have been providing his recommended services and monitoring his progress. Something may have been happening in his life and mind well beyond the purview of the school.

It all starts with a school team identifying needed supports and putting them in place as soon as possible. But it doesn’t end there, as I learned the hard way in Roberto’s case. Who was he connected with “in the community who could help him long term”?

To prevent troubled kids from becoming troubled teens who decide to hurt others and themselves, we need services of aligned support that extend beyond the school and into the community and which can help to ensure continuity of supports and services over time.

We can’t reach every kid every time, but if we can keep guns out of their reach, and keep listening to what they say, and taking them seriously, and giving them hope, I think–I hope–we can do much more to prevent harm over the long term.

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