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In Minnesota, good school security but stretched services for kids’ disorders

REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
A man hugs his daughter while visiting a memorial to the victims of Friday's shooting in Sandy Hook Village in Newtown, Conn.

On Friday as news of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut hit the Internet, I was in downtown Minneapolis at Macy’s’ holiday display on a field trip with my younger son. We were having a great, if exhausting, time. For a rare moment, the mother in me and the education writer were in perfect harmony.

What teachers want most, in my experience, is to know that they are making a difference, and this group of Minneapolis teachers clearly was. They were clearly invested and effective with their rambunctious fifth-graders, attuned to the small moments in which each might be coached on a particular skill or a victory reinforced.

And then my phone began buzzing with horrific news. I put on a poker face, which I wore through Santa’s animatronic kingdom, through the delicate exercise of getting every child a cookie without breaking the bank and through a marionette show in which a pair of stuffed trees cracked terrible puns.

With every kid back on the bus, the lead teacher looked at her phone, too. Her face crumpled, drawing the attention of another seated a couple of rows behind her. As the phone got passed around, the adults worked hard to look anywhere but at their kids. Me, too: As grateful as I was to know where my boy was, eye contact would have tipped him that something was terribly wrong.

The unvarnished, gut-twisting truth is that there is nothing to prevent a Newtown from happening here at any time. And that’s not going to change until we deal not just with access to guns but with the fact that schools bear a disproportionate share of the impact of years of steady cutbacks in funding for children’s mental-health needs and other vital services.

News media were still putting out conflicting reports as of press time, but it seems clear that the Newtown shooter had both an arsenal and a developmental disability that was not being addressed. The school in question had the same kind of good security my kids’ buildings do, and the internet is awash in tales of Sandy Hook teachers whose nimble thinking kept the carnage from being worse.

Attention given to security since 2000

Security and safety protocols in Minnesota schools are generally quite good. Policymakers started paying closer attention in 2000, after Columbine. Emergency plans were revisited after the 2003 shooting at Rocori High School in Cold Spring and the 2005 tragedy at Red Lake High School.

A special state funding stream aimed at health and safety needs miraculously escaped the budgetary bloodletting at the Legislature during the last two years. And much in the way that other government agencies have begun making emergency preparedness an everyday issue, schools have, too. Minneapolis Public Schools last summer christened a mobile emergency response command center that can quite literally be driven to the scene of everything from a weather-related disaster to a Newtown.

School doors are typically locked and electronically controlled, visitors are logged, and by law teachers and administrators hold five lockdown drills a year. I visit a lot of schools and I can’t think of an exception. At many, teachers wear the equivalent of walkie-talkies on lanyards around their necks so that the entire building can be in instant communication if need be.

And yet kids bring guns to schools. In the nine years since my oldest entered kindergarten, we’ve had three episodes: a gun an elementary pupil brought to school not to use but to show his friends, a rifle brought to a middle school by a high-schooler looking to intimidate someone and — this last I learned of Friday as news trickled down to the younger set — a day a couple of years ago when someone pointed a gun at No. 2’s bus.

Indeed, while I was taught in kindergarten to “stop, drop and roll” in case of a fire, both of my kids were taught not to touch any gun they might come across at a friend’s house, and to instead find an adult to tell.

Untreated mental illnesses

Meanwhile, the number of fragile, volatile kids depending on schools for intensive services is skyrocketing. Thanks to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) we know, for instance, that one in five children has a diagnosable mental illness, yet 70 to 80 percent either do not receive treatment or receive inadequate care.

And in Minnesota, we know that cuts in state funding to health and human services have made it harder for needy kids to get help. In Hennepin County alone, the number of youth placed in residential treatment, foster care and corrections fell by a third between 2008 and 2009. Long-term placement in residential treatment programs fell by almost 40 percent during the same time.

The insurance industry doesn’t want to shoulder these long-term expenses, either. Psychiatric beds for anyone are scarce; psychiatric beds for kids are rare as hen’s teeth. Even parents of means are frequently stymied.

The needs don’t go away with the money, of course. They get shifted onto the public schools, which are quite properly required to address the rights and needs of children with disabilities, including violent behaviors that often signal undiagnosed mental-health or special-ed needs.

By law, schools can’t turn these kids away, nor are they reimbursed anything approaching the cost of providing services. Some places skimp. And the balance comes out of general-education funding — charitably described as flat at best — which means fewer services for all kids.

News media made error after error in the rush to report what happened in Newtown. It seems likely that whatever investigators piece together Adam Lanza had some sort of disability — “A developmental disorder that often left him reserved and withdrawn,” the New York Times reported — that had not been addressed appropriately.

He was 20, which puts him within the window in which he would have been eligible for continued special-ed transition services, federally mandated programming designed to help young adults move from high school to higher ed, the work force or another appropriate long-term arrangement.

Scant special-ed transition services

Yet the reality in Minnesota is that these transition services are deplorably scant, leaving lots of young people as isolated as reports suggest Lanza was.  

And finally, let’s not forget that hideous though the thought of an entire first grade classroom wiped out in seconds is, Newtown was a workplace shooting, too. A principal, a school psychologist and four teachers died doing extraordinary things that should not be part of their job descriptions.

Me, I want the teachers I spent Friday with able to show up for work this morning confident they and their kids will enjoy the safety and security that will allow them to spend the day making that difference.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/17/2012 - 11:46 am.

    School security

    …will never, ever be 100%. As James Ron wrote in an earlier post to MinnPost, we could, at mind-boggling cost, turn every school into a kind of fortress, but not only would the public not support the cost of such an effort, the end result would do much to make education in general unattractive, to phrase it politely. Even if such fortress-building were successful, there’s still the matter of the people inside the fortress.

    In addition to the depressing litany of shootings daily across the country, there are also too-frequent cases of someone already inside the school attacking someone else who’s also inside the school, whether it’s a student or a staff member. There are no guarantees that the people you’re sharing that school with are safe and sane, as Columbine and other examples exemplify. In my 30 classroom years I saw plenty of bizarre behavior on the part of 16 and 17-year-olds that had me watching carefully.

    And thanks, Beth, for pointing out that the unspeakable and ghastly slaughter of those little kids was also a workplace shooting. Even Coloradans who remember the Columbine attack have a tendency to forget that one of those who died in the attack there was a teacher, Dave Sanders, who was shot while getting kids out of the cafeteria and the line of fire. He bled to death waiting for help. No one I encountered on a school staff ever suggested they went into teaching because they wanted an opportunity to engage in armed combat. Right wing suggestions that teachers ought to be armed grotesquely miss the point.

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 12/17/2012 - 12:16 pm.

    One out of every five American (or just Minnesota?) children has a mental health problem? I checked the advocacy organization’s newsletter that you cite for that extraordinary figure, but found no reference to consult. Can you give one?

    Or maybe the difficulty here is the lack of definition of a mental health disability. For fully twenty percent of all children to be so designated, there has to be a very wide definition, right?

    And, that would extend to all adults–that 20% of us have mental problems?

  3. Submitted by Mike Downing on 12/17/2012 - 12:22 pm.

    Problem is with adults as well!

    This is a VERY sad statistic: “one in five children has a diagnosable mental illness, yet 70 to 80 percent either do not receive treatment or receive inadequate care.”!

    Yet it doesn’t stop with children. Adults do not receive treatment or receive inadequate care as well and represents a large reason for divorces as well as abuse of women in marriages. What can society do when children with mental illness turn 18? We as a society must address this issue or we will have more “Sandy Hooks”.

  4. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 12/17/2012 - 12:43 pm.

    Newtown: ” ‘We can’t tolerate this anymore,’ he said.”

    I am not optimistic.

    These incidents have been going for roughly 50+ years notably with the assassination of President Kennedy and the tower shooter at a university in Texas. We lack the political will to prohibit the sale of semi-automatic rifles and handguns. We can find the money to promote “healthy” eating in our schools but we somehow can’t ever locate the funds necessary to treat those individuals in our schools and society who are isolated and live without hope. We know or have a pretty good idea as to who they are, but we don’t reach them. We just don’t get it done.

  5. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 12/17/2012 - 01:01 pm.

    Nicely done

    This was nicely done and covers a lot of the problem. We of course have to remember that we are a long way from utopia even if we did have an exemplary system in place. But that doesn’t mean we have not slipped in our ability to to learn, work and live with each other peaceably in recent years. My cousins lived in the community next to Newtown and I have been there many times-a very peaceful place. My college dorm mate from Connecticut commented when that it was the part of CT where they watch the cows chew.

    I also am in a company that does mental health and in the schools too. What a long way we are from access and coverage. In Minneapolis they want you to fill out a form to be a provider but then “probably won’t use you.” So they are likely well staffed. Hm. In schools where we are we do not have access to under-insured, uninsured children and some clients have co-pays that are more than we charge for the service. The greatest frustration is that parents must sign treatment plans and various other items but often they will not-they are strangers to the school. We can go in the homes but one mother won’t come in to sign the treatment plan and won’t let us in the home because “I am not the problem”. She is. Transition is a joke. We in the schools have to call it a “process” not a service because that is the best that can be said-there is precious little there for services at the end of the process. The new Assertive Community Treatment service has great promise but is a ways from implementation.

    Beth is right the residential, foster care and other services have been starved and DHS itself sees them as ‘stranger care” thinking that adoption is the answer to all the ills of the world just now-the new fad cure-ignoring the failed adoptions running the streets homeless. The newspapers will cover this mess with one word-inadequate- and the public will come to believe that government has once again fallen down in a world where parents struggle, armed with their rights and guns, and resources have been reduced because we voted to do so. Meanwhile we ask too infrequently, “how are the children doing?”

  6. Submitted by Paul Scott on 12/17/2012 - 02:29 pm.

    NAMI Statistics

    I would be skeptical about the 1 in 5 statistic. It is used to justify the drugging of well kids and well adults and is a centerpiece of dubious disease awareness campaigns. Plus, a lot of these drugs promote violence. NAMI means well but has little insight on the fact of their good will and the “stigma of mental illness meme” having long since been appropriated by the drug industry.

  7. Submitted by Nick Magrino on 12/17/2012 - 03:58 pm.

    I worry that, in a way, we’re getting at fifty percent of the problem here when we try talk about mental health in America, and especially children’s mental health. Or not even fifty percent, more like fifty percent of each half of the problem.

    We clearly underemphasize major mental health issues. There are far too many people walking around Nicollet Mall on any given day angrily having conversations with themselves. It’s especially sad now that’s it’s winter, and you often see these people in a light jacket yelling at a wall or into empty space. That’s a problem that’s easy to solve–instead of forcing our mentally-disabled homeless into a rotating mess of shelters, homeless, drug addiction, etc, we really ought to think about reinstitutionalizing a lot of those folks. If we can afford to have 80+ flavors of Doritos, we can get the chronically homeless off the streets and into care.

    But at the same time, we clearly overemphasize minor mental health issues. Does anyone really think *twenty percent* of kids have a diagnosable mental illness? Does anyone who doesn’t own stock in Pfizer think that’s a good idea? Adults really need to take a step back and consider what they’re doing here. Consider the effects of telling a seven or eight year old kid that their brain is broken, and that they need to be fixed, and that they need to take these pills everyday, forever, and that they need to see a shrink every couple weeks, and be put in a special class, etc etc etc.

    I came of age somewhat recently, and I don’t see this all playing out well. Teen problems aren’t teen problems anymore–your brain doesn’t work right. You have a disorder. You have an illness. Don’t underestimate the power of a man or woman in a white labcoat to completely wreck kids’ lives. They’re an impressionable bunch, and pathologizing personality traits is great for pharmaceutical companies’ bottom lines.

    I guess a good way to think about it would be to compare it to an auto mechanic. Everyone is skeptical that an auto mechanic is going to use their perceived knowledge of their field to rip you off and sell you stuff you don’t need. Hopefully parents will start being half as cautious before loading fifth graders up with diagnoses and medications that will impact them for the rest of their lives.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/18/2012 - 09:17 am.

      Very good points

      I think you analyzed the situation quite well. We’re paying too little attention to the big problems and way too much on the little problems. Probably both as a matter of inconvenience. I don’t buy that 20% of kids at any given time suffers from a mental health issue. It’s possible that 20% of kids may suffer from a mental health issue over the course of childhood. I don’t know, though, that Beth was suggesting that “treatment” necessarily means drugs. Counseling is often sufficient, and should be included when drugs ARE used. Unfortunately, access to counseling, even school counselors, is pretty limited due to understaffing and other issues.

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