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Ailing student mental health driving school violence

Ailing student mental health driving school violence

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High school students take cover during an active shooter training session. Brianna Calix BRIANNA CALIX / [email protected]

By the time teachers and school resource officers got involved in trying to break up a recent brawl at A.C. Flora High, it was already too late.

About a dozen students were swinging at each other, according to video of the incident. A teacher and a school resource officer stepped in to pull students away. But more joined in, and the adults were overwhelmed. Other students stood by to videotape or just watch. Some bystanders were close enough to catch a stray fist.

That same day, Dec. 8, a 14-year-old Flora student wrote the words “do not come to school on December 9,” on a bathroom wall, a threat that got him arrested and charged with a misdemeanor.

Scenes of violence and threats have been increasingly playing out on school campuses across the Midlands, leaving parents and educators scrambling to find a solution. Education experts say declining student mental health, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is driving the problem.

Following an unfounded Dec. 14 threat of a gun at Lakewood High School, Sumter County Sheriff Anthony Dennis said in a news release, “Unfortunately, this is one of the many threats of school violence that have been reported within the last few weeks and they seem to be increasing.”

Patrick Kelly, the director of governmental affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association who helped assemble the state’s back-to-school guide for COVID-19 in 2020, agreed that school violence is on the rise.

“Anecdotally, we certainly have more incidents this year in S.C. schools of disruptions in schools, of physical altercations. And I think that unfortunately, that’s something that is a result of the instructional disruptions over the last 3 years,” Kelly said.

Experts are not surprised that COVID-19 and ailing student mental health has led to more violence, said Kenita Williams, the chief operations officer of the Southern Education Foundation.

“We are living in a uniquely stressful time,” Williams said.

Mac Hardy, the chief operating officer of the National Association of School Resource Officers, agrees. The pandemic was even worse for children who experience neglect or abuse at home. For students who relied on schools for social or mental health services, the pandemic deprived them of a crucial need they may not be able to get elsewhere, Hardy said.

The problem isn’t just a bad batch of students, said Steve Nuzum, a teacher at Ridge View High and member of the teacher advocacy group SCforEd. When students misbehave, it’s often the result of external factors.

“It’s not that students have become bad,” Nuzum said. “They’re not trying to come to school maliciously trying to cause problems. I think that when you see an uptick in violence and fights, it’s trauma.”

The disruptions to school affect not only students directly involved, but other students who attend the school, said William Owens, who has a ninth grader and an 11th grader enrolled at A.C. Flora.

“I definitely think there is nervousness,” Owens told The State. “Fortunately my children haven’t been involved in any of these altercations directly, but it’s something that they are very aware of. They have been witnesses to it. They’ve been in close proximity to it. I wouldn’t say it makes them fearful or scared, but I would say definitely nervous to go to class and wondering what’s going to happen next.”

While it may be possible for other students to ignore a group of students fighting, threats of a weapon on campus can be even more upsetting and disruptive.

“When you hear about rumors of ‘I heard there was a knife on campus, ‘I heard somebody had a gun,’ they can’t help but be scared about that,” Owens said.

Owens said he and his wife, Lorien, have been hearing about more violence and threats at school than in previous years. It’s something he believes deserves more attention from district officials.

“I think, number one, there has to be recognition that this is a serious issue,” Owens said. “It’s easy to dismiss this as it’s a high school, it’s a public high school, whatever. I can tell you the perception is that this is a very serious matter and this is increasing in frequency. I think the events … at A.C. Flora certainly bear that out. I also know that A.C. Flora is not unique. If it’s happening here, it’s got to be happening at the other high schools in the district.”

School threats

Since October, at least eight weapons have been found on the campuses of South Carolina schools.

Since September, students at Irmo High, Riverside High, Northside Christian Academy, Chester High, Clarendon Hall, White Knoll High, Hilton Head Island High School, Laurens High, Eau Claire High, Gregg Middle, Summerville High, J.L. Mann High and more were all either placed under lockdown, went online because of a threat or had increased police presence on campus because of a threat.

Some, but not all, of these incidents preceded the Nov. 30 school shooting in Michigan that killed four students. While active shootings like those tend to be the most horrific, the majority of school shootings are not committed by lone gunmen killing as many people as possible, according to statistics from the U.S. Center for Homeland Defense and Security.

Of the 238 school shootings in 2021, only nine were considered “active” shooters, according to the data. The center’s definition of a school shooting is any time a gun is “brandished, is fired, or a bullet hits school property for any reason, regardless of the number of victims (including zero), time, day of the week, or reason,” according to the website’s methodology page.

According to that definition, 2021 had the highest number of school shootings at 238. The year with the next highest number was 2019, which had 119.

And while the highest-profile shootings, such as Parkland in Florida or Columbine in Colorado, were committed by students or former students who wanted to kill as many as possible, the most likely cause of school shootings — 37% —since 1970 is an escalation of a dispute, according to the center. The second most-common cause of school shootings is accidents, which accounts for less than 11% of school shootings. In fact, only 5% of shootings were classified as “indiscriminate shooting.” Just over 4% were listed as an “unknown” situation.

Since the lion’s share of K-12 students are under 18 and therefore can’t legally purchase firearms, school districts have been trying to educate parents on how best to secure guns at home and demonstrate responsible firearm ownership. Richland District 2 recently inked a partnership with the Be SMART Program, a project developed by Everytown for Gun Safety that seeks to do just that.

The program focuses on teaching parents how to secure firearms, be a role model for responsible firearm ownership, be aware that firearms are often used in suicides and to educate their peers on gun safety, according to a news release from Richland 2.

Williams, of the Southern Education Foundation, isn’t sure whether an increase in violence on campus and the increase of threats and weapons on campus are caused by the same factors of mental health and trauma, but said the solutions — cultivating social and emotional learning, improving student mental health and teaching emotional intelligence — are likely the same for preventing violence and threats of violence.

“We need to move toward providing positive school environments that embed a sense of safety and wellness for all students regardless of who they are, and also be cultivating that mental health, that emotional health, that emotional intelligence within students so they can cope with stress, manage their emotions, understand peaceful contact resolution and the like,” Williams said.

Mental health

Since the reason many students act out is trauma, it follows that fixing behavioral problems starts with improving student mental health, Nuzum and Kelly said.

“When a student gets to a point where they engage in a violent activity at school, not every single time is it the result of a mental health condition, but increasingly it is,” Kelly said.

Some believe mental health among children is dire. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently issued an advisory urging action on the “nation’s youth mental health crisis” that was exacerbated by COVID-19.

Following a false threat at Chapin High School on Dec. 3 that prompted some parents to remove their children from class, the interim superintendent of the Lexington-Richland 5 school district said administrators would be bringing on “expectation coaches” who can offer tutoring and guidance to students with behavioral issues. Six will be deployed at Irmo High School, Irmo Middle School and Crossroads Intermediate early next year.

Akil Ross, the interim superintendent, believes learning difficulties are at the root of many behavioral issues. When administrators looked at 55 students who got into trouble at Irmo High, they found many were reading at a sixth grade level.

“What could help us is if our community took the goal of creating a climate where students learn how to deal with disagreement and frustration,” Ross said.

Schools need to hire trained professionals to deal with student mental health, rather than make existing employees do more, said Kelly, of the Palmetto State Teachers Association.

“We need more resources for the mental health needs and counseling of our students,” Kelly said. “We can’t just stack it on teachers and administrators because they’re not trained to see those needs of our student.”

But hiring mental health officials isn’t as simple as adding a job posting.

“Our district will generally have a certain number of (full-time equivalent employees), and you have to decide how to spend those,” said Nuzum of Ridge View High in Richland District 2. “And that is everything from people who are working at the district office to teachers, or anyone who is a full-time employee. So if you gain a teacher maybe that’s one less social worker or one less counselor you can hire. Because we don’t have enough of any of these things, I do think it’s a funding issue.”

But even if schools increased their budgets and added more jobs for mental health officials, it can be difficult to hire them. For one, there aren’t enough mental health workers to go around. In South Carolina, 44% of people live in an area that has a mental health professional shortage, according to a report from nonprofit research group USAFacts.

But even in areas where there is no shortage of mental health professionals, schools often struggle to compete with other employers when seeking mental health professionals.

“That’s the problem across the board with school jobs right now. They’re just not attractive, especially not in an economy where there’s suddenly a lot of jobs becoming available that weren’t available before,” Nuzum said. “If you want to be a public school teacher, there’s not a lot of variation and pay…but if you’re basically any other position in a school building, a social worker or psychologist or nurse or something like that then you have a lot of other options.”

In South Carolina and throughout the country, schools are seeing a shortage of school psychologists. In S.C., for every one school psychologist there are 1,413 students, according to a study based on 2019-2020 data by the National Association of School Psychologists. The association recommends having one psychologist for every 500 students. Very few states meet that threshhold, and some states have as many as 10,000 students per school psychologist, according to the association.

“I don’t know how else to say it, but this isn’t the year to be arguing about critical race theory or banning books or whatever. That’s not the problem,” Nuzum said. “These kids aren’t bringing guns to school because of the books we have in the library. It’s not that those issues can’t be important or things we discuss, but I think we really lost sight of the goal of having our kids be safe and healthy.”

While experts say schools play a role in reducing campus violence and threats of violence, the solutions must go further than that.

“We’ve got to work this as a community,” Hardy said.

For example, one possible solution is to make sure every student in a school has a faculty or staff member they can go to if they or someone they know is having a mental health crisis. During his 20 years working in school safety, the most frightening experiences he had were when a student posed a potential threat and that student had no adult to talk to.

“Threat assessments are huge, making sure students have a trusted adult in that building who knows them,” Hardy said. “Every staff member in that school needs to be one of those adults.”

One program that has found promising results is a Shreveport, Lousiana-based group called Dads on Duty. After multiple students were arrested for fighting at school, 40 fathers got permission from the school to greet students in the hallway and maintain a presence in the hallway. The program saw early success preventing fights, even though the parent volunteers didn’t have experience with social work, psychology, criminal justice or other professional backgrounds, according to CBS.

Anecdotally, Williams said she has heard good things about the Dads on Duty group and thinks that sort of community-based approach to reducing school violence is promising.

“If we are thinking about cultivating social and emotional learning, and mental health and supports within schools, we should absolutely think about how we’re supporting students and parents outside of school walls,” Williams said.

— Bristow Marchant contributed reporting to this article.

This story was originally published December 20, 2021 5:00 AM.

Lucas Daprile has been covering the University of South Carolina and higher education since March 2018. Before working for The State, he graduated from Ohio University and worked as an investigative reporter at TCPalm in Stuart, FL. Lucas received several awards from the S.C. Press Association, including for education beat reporting, series of articles and enterprise reporting.
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Bristow Marchant covers local government, schools and community in Lexington County for The State. He graduated from the College of Charleston in 2007. He has more than 10 years of experience covering South Carolina at the Clinton Chronicle, Sumter Item and Rock Hill Herald. He joined The State in 2016. Bristow won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.
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