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

One in five children has a diagnosable mental illness, yet 70 to 80 percent either do not receive treatment or receive inadequate care.

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

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.

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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.

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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.