Premeditated and Preventable

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By David Chartrand
Friday, April 20, 2007

When it comes to school gunmen (and, yes, they're usually male) what may seem like random acts of madness are usually premeditated.

"The most frequent motive was revenge," the Secret Service concluded in a 2002 study of 37 school shootings. As part of the Safe Schools Initiative it undertook with the Education Department after the 1999 Columbine killings, agents reviewed cases and interviewed 10 school shooters. They found that school assassins send clear warnings and that "[i]nformation about these attackers' intent and planning was potentially knowable before the incident."

None of this suggests that assassins deserve public sympathy or that all mentally ill people are dangerous. But many such tragedies are preventable -- assuming people take steps to prevent them. A good place to start is where young people spend most of their time: school.

For decades, schools and universities have ignored the recommendations of mental health experts that they set up screening programs for students. They have also largely ignored the advice of school psychologists to develop formal protocols and training programs that teach students, faculty members and counselors how to recognize warning signs and what to do when they identify someone who is mentally ill or suicidal.

The Associated Press reported in September that many colleges expel suicidal students rather than offer counseling. Ironically, Virginia passed legislation in February barring this practice on its state campuses.

Scott Poland, a Florida school psychologist and a leading authority on school crises and the prevention of adolescent suicide, estimates that less than a fifth of American schools have installed the suicide prevention programs and mental health protocols recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists.

Schools have access to 20 years of guidelines on handling mentally ill students and data on youth violence, suicide and attempted suicide. But when schools or agencies adopt safety policies and protocols, they can be held legally responsible for tragedies they fail to prevent. (A trial scheduled to begin this summer in Kansas involves a mother's claim that poorly trained school personnel inadvertently caused the suicides of her two teenage sons in 2003. Rather than refute the claims, the defense is arguing that schools have no obligation to protect suicidal students or their families.)

And when teachers, parents and school boards refuse to talk openly about depression and suicide, children get the message: No one wants to listen. It's no great leap for them to take matters into their own hands.

The Secret Service investigation found that while most shooters had never had a mental health evaluation, most had a history of suicide attempts. More than half had a "documented history of feeling extremely depressed or desperate." What the study didn't explain is who knew all this ahead of time. Parents? Teachers? Close friends? If alienated students reached out for help, did anyone reach back?

How many dead children will it take before America seriously discusses mental health screening for children and mandatory suicide prevention programs for students, teachers and counselors? The President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health endorsed such reforms in 2003 because schools "must be partners in the mental health care of our children."

A child with an untreated mental illness becomes a teenager with an untreated mental illness -- and may become an angry adult with access to weapons.

David Chartrand, a freelance writer, is completing a book on how American communities and schools have dealt with mental illness and depression among children. His e-mail address isdvc@davidchartrand.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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