What Can Schools Do About Disturbed Students?

One of the most troubling aspects of last month’s fatal shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan is that the tragic incident took place even though teachers and school counselors reportedly saw warning signs.

Fifteen-year-old Ethan Crumbley has been charged with murder, assault and terrorism in connection with the shooting. According to reports, the day before the shooting, the school contacted his parents after a teacher saw Crumbley looking at pictures of bullets on his phone during class. His mother’s response? “LOL I’m not mad at you,” she allegedly texted, “You have to learn not to get caught.” Apparently, the morning of the shooting, Crumbley was observed drawing disturbing and violent images, which he claimed were for a video game he was designing. He was taken out of class, and after a meeting with school officials, his parents were told they had to look for counseling for him within 48 hours. The school tried get his parents to take him home, but they wouldn’t and Crumbley was sent back to class. The unthinkable happened and now four teenagers are dead and several others are hurt.

Reporting in The Washington Post and The Times suggests that experts don’t agree about whether the school should have known that there was a credible threat to other students. Oxford’s superintendent said that Crumbley’s demeanor, his parents’ responses to “specific probing questions” and his lack of prior infractions led school authorities to believe that Crumbley wasn’t dangerous.

The parents of two sisters who survived the shooting filed a federal lawsuit this week against the school district, “including the superintendent, principal, dean of students, two guidance counselors and two teachers,” Dana Goldstein, a Times education reporter, writes. The lawsuit claims the school had “reckless disregard” for student safety, stating that “Crumbley posted countdowns and threats of bodily harm” on social media.

As a parent who sends her children into a public school every day, assuming that they’ll be safe, I wanted to know: How do school administrators and staff assess whether a student is dangerous? Teenagers are expert at pushing boundaries. So, how do professionals untangle adolescent bravado from threats of violence?

Unfortunately, “there is no profile of a school shooter that is reliable,” said Stephen Brock, a school psychologist and former president of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). However, “There is absolutely a difference between making a threat and posing a threat.” He added, “just because a student made a threat, doesn’t mean they’re a danger to themselves or others. There are risk factors and warning signs that would elevate one’s concerns and the probability they may act out.”

While it’s impossible to predict human behavior, Brock said, the best predictor is past behavior. According to NASP’s “Brief Facts and Tips” on threat assessment at school, “Most students who pose a substantive threat indicate their intentions in some way. Examples include statements to friends, ideas in written work, drawings, and postings on social media that threaten harm.”

In the event of an alarming behavioral incident, schools are supposed to have a plan in place to address it, which ideally would include convening a group of qualified adults to assess the child. “We don’t want any one person dealing with this on their own. The stakes are too high,” Brock said. NASP’s guidance suggests the involvement of “The appropriate school administrator, the school crisis team leader, the school-employed mental health professional and/or local law enforcement immediately.”

Brock said that school psychologists don’t always want to contact law enforcement. “We’re really sensitive to the school to prison pipeline. We don’t want to involve law enforcement reflexively,” he said. But schools should have established relationships with the local police, he added, and ideally those officers will have some special training to work in schools.

Josh McKivigan, a behavioral health therapist who works with middle and high school students, said that the majority of threats that he has encountered do not turn into violence. “It’s usually students acting out, needing some sort of mental health treatment,” McKivigan said. And he said that students are getting better and better at identifying and sounding the alarm to teachers and counselors when their friends are exhibiting worrying behaviors — like not sleeping, not bathing, isolating from people or saying bizarre things.

Still, he said that as a school therapist, he found the Michigan incident chilling because it seemed, based on reports, like the accused student’s parents weren’t willing to work with the school to help monitor their child. McKivigan also said that with Covid, he’s seeing a baseline level of irritability, anger and mistrust among parents and students alike, which he finds worrisome. “It feels like a perfect storm for a crisis happening,” he said.

Despite the absolute terror that mass shootings inspire in just about everyone, it’s worth pointing out that these types of events are relatively rare, and schools remain among the safest places for children. According to the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), which monitors youth behaviors every two years, 11.8 percent of students carried a weapon on school property in 1993 in the 30 days before the survey and only 2.8 percent did in 2019. Brock also pointed out to me that violence in schools is prevented all the time; we just don’t often hear about those cases. The Post just ran a story about a grandmother who did contact authorities, potentially averting a tragedy.

Just because students may be relatively physically safe does not mean they feel psychologically safe. There is evidence that they don’t. According to YRBS data, almost twice the percentage of students missed at least one day school because of safety concerns in the 30 days before the survey than was the case years ago — 8.7 percent in 2019, up from 4.4 percent in 1993. Lauren Koong, who won a Times Learning Network essay contest, wrote about how every time she hears the lunch bell ring at her Houston high school, she is reminded of a gang-related shooting that happened her freshman year.

For too many of our kids, we can’t erase these awful memories, and I confess that after reporting this out, I don’t feel optimistic. Not because I don’t think teachers and school counselors aren’t prepared to address potential violence. On the contrary, I think most of them are doing their best to keep students safe. But they aren’t psychic, and in a country where there are, according to one study, 120.5 firearms for every 100 residents, there will always be the potential for a worst-case scenario.

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