Saving students in crisis: Intervention and assessment


Third grader Alexis Kelliher points to her feelings while visiting a sensory room at Williams Elementary School, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021, in Topeka, Kan. The rooms are designed to relieve stresses faced by students as they return to classrooms amid the ongoing pandemic. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

(NewsNation) — When adolescents go through a mental health crisis — which can lead to self-harm or harming others — schools are often the first line of defense. Teachers, administrators, counselors, parents and other students all have a role to play in identifying warning signs.

For Michele Gay, the issue of school shootings is personal. She lost her daughter in the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy.

In the aftermath, she co-founded the organization Safe & Sound Schools to advocate for safety with an emphasis on identifying warning signs and staging interventions.

“Some of the basic interventions that we see working (in) our schools are universal” measures applicable everywhere, Gay said. “They’re things like anti-bullying campaigns, or relationship building, making sure that every child has a trusted adult in the school community, making sure our culture is one of acceptance.”

Beyond the universal measures, there are also more targeted and and intensive interventions that can zoom in on individual students when concerns arise.

“We have things like social supports and routine check-ins with students, with each other, with those trusted adults, with school counselors and school psychologists, with coaches and teachers, really trying to plug kids in to positive relationships and making sure that they have ownership over their community,” Gay said.

Gay also pointed to behavioral threat assessment teams as one important tool for schools to prevent violence. These teams typically consist of teachers, administrators and school security officials who work together to identify possible threats, assess the nature of the threat, and then manage the threat through interventions such as counseling or parent conferences. This approach has successfully prevented some attacks.

“What we’ve learned over the years in building our expert team, reaching out to school psychologists, and threat assessment professionals, (as well as) mental health professionals is that it really takes a tiered approach,” she said.

These teams evaluate the risk of violence and implement interventions designed to tackle the underlying issues. The assessments aren’t necessarily punitive, either, instead designed to intervene before someone commits a crime or harms themself.

Mental health and school safety specialists point to a number of indicators to look for. Adolescents who may be planning an act of violence sometimes make remarks that indicate violent intent.

“So there’s content that’s important — like, what kind of things do they write about?” said Dr. Carolina Castaños, an Austin, Texas-based therapist who specializes in family therapy.

She noted that students at risk of committing violence often make threats beforehand or have angry outbursts.

The shooter in Texas reportedly sent a private message on social media announcing his intention. Also, the suspect in the Buffalo mass shooting allegedly made “disturbing comments regarding murder/suicide” last year.

These sorts of threats could be seen as an example of “leakage,” one of the two categories of warning signs of school shootings identified by Dr. Peter Langman, a psychologist who spent years studying school shooters. In his book, Langman describes leakage as “what people say” whereas attack-related behavior is “what people do.”

Attack-related behavior relates to any behavior that is done in anticipation of an attack. This can be buying weapons or surveilling the future site of the attack.

The Texas shooter had reportedly moved in with his grandmother after a fight with his mother and purchased two firearms a week before the attack.

Langman does caution that “there is no guaranteed way to predict or prevent violence,” meaning that we shouldn’t look at these warning signs as hard and fast information.

There are also behaviors that can serve as a sign of a student’s mental health crisis that don’t revolve around advertising or planning for an impending attack.

“They may be not taking care of their … body,” Castaños said.

A student who has a noticeable decline in personal hygiene or who has a disheveled appearance could be going through a mental health crisis.

Castaños emphasized that we should prioritize mental well-being consistently, similar to how we think about physical health.

“It’s important for us to recognize that mental health is not something that you take into consideration when you’re feeling anxious, depressed, when things are going really bad for you, you know?” she said. “Mental health is something that you work on every day.”

© 1998 - 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. | All Rights Reserved.

Trending on NewsNation

Elections 2022

More Elections 2022