I’ve confiscated guns from high school students, conducted risk of harm danger-to-others 5150 evaluations, and sent texts to my own family, “If I don’t make it home tonight, just know I love you.” For example, when a student (16) posted on Snapchat with a rifle, another student took a screen shot and shared it; The principal called me and said, “I really don’t know what to do, how soon can you get here?”
We met with student and conducted risk evaluation, (similar to suicide risk assessment), spoke with his family, collected the weapon, and made sure there were no other firearms accessible to children in the house.
I’ve co-led trainings on de-escalation with law enforcement, led trauma-informed practices trainings and professional development for educators, child welfare social workers and interns, and behavioral health professionals.
At each training, we ask ourselves, “what more can we be doing to prevent death by gun violence? What more can I do to prevent another gun-violence-at-school tragedy?
Too often we, mental health professionals, tend not to serve or under serve difficult clients with what’s deemed to be volitional behavior. In schools, initial decisions about whether or not behavior will be addressed as a discipline matter (volitional) vs. a mental health a concern, is made by school administrators. Many educational leaders, however, report that they don’t have the level of training needed to evaluate students with potentially dangerous behaviors.
Additionally, even after students are identified as in need of behavioral health support, school counselors and support staff must engage with students and families to obtain informed consent to participate in services. Counselors are less likely to pursue consent for students who say, “I’m not interested in therapy,” even when their behavior demonstrates a need.
Some parents and guardians are reluctant or outright opposed to “mental health” services for their children. Equity and shared vision guides our work and we must acknowledge that many parents, especially parents of color, had negative experiences when they were in school; it’s important to understand the reasons for their caution and hesitations when it comes to mental health services.
Counseling support is often centered around a student’s school day, social emotional learning, and academic progress. Many school personnel meet and communicate with parents and guardians, but few professionals are trained to improve family relationships and dynamics, a key factor in youth mental health. After a tragic loss in mass shootings by school-age youth, bullying and exclusion is often cited as a reason for violence. It’s difficult to question if family dysfunction played a role in violence that occurred, especially if family members were also victims of gun violence. Sadly, this was the case in mass shooting at Robb Elementary School yesterday in Uvalde, Texas (21 killed) and at Sandy Hook Elementary School (26 killed).
School-based Mental Health Programs: Some innovative programs are making inroads engaging families and extended support networks to provide multi-generational support. Even with recent successes and improvements in mental health and school-based mental health programs, we are serving 1 in 5 students identified as needing support services.
Beyond Co-location: Post pandemic, school personnel and partnership agencies have had success reaching out tenaciously to build trust with students and families.
School social workers offer multi-faceted solutions include 5-component “packages of support” that combine professional services, youth enrichment positive activities, and three other people or programs on each child’s team, based on self-determination and each child’s unique needs. Evaluation and referral, care coordination (case management), helps to link students with specialized services, physicians, and child psychiatrists.
Johns Hopkins, UC Berkeley, and The California Student Mental Health Policy Workgroup at CDE have put forward excellent policy recommendations.
Our job, as practitioners, is to put policy into practice.
James Wogan, LCSW