“We Had 19 Years to Prevent This Tragedy”

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in an edition of NOVA’s email newsletter, NOVA Lens, and has now been repurposed for NOVA Next. Sign up for NOVA Lens here (select “NOVA Newsletters”).

The days after any school shooting are solemn. What happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day is no exception. It’s the topic on everyone’s minds this week.

With that in mind, we decided to investigate the state of mental health resources available for students across the country.

“One of the things that’s troubling me is how focused we are on the ultimate act,” clinical child psychologist Ross Greene told us. “We had 19 years to prevent this tragedy. We can’t only pay attention to what happened in the past six months. What could we have done differently over those 19 years to keep this from happening?”

Marjory Stoneman Douglas student Madisyn Menthaca, 15, places roses on the memorials on a hillside with her mother, Kelly Savino.

First, here’s some background on the relationship between mental illness and violence: People with severe mental illnesses—like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder—are more likely to be perpetrators of violence compared to the rest of the population. But overall, they don’t commit many crimes. The share of violence attributed to severe mental illness is low. In fact, mentally ill people as a whole are actually more often victims of violence. And usually people who are both mentally ill and exhibit violent tendencies do so because of their particular circumstances (substance abuse, childhood trauma, adversity, etc.). The Parkland school shooter was diagnosed with autism (a developmental disorder as opposed to a mental illness) and had demonstrated alarming behavioral problems. Beyond these two facts, we don’t know a lot about his mental state.

“Youths with behavioral problems who are expelled have high rates of emotional disturbance and are very likely to have continued behavioral problems,” wrote Edward Cohen, a professor at San Jose University’s School of Social Work, in a letter to The New York Times’ editors. “Some school districts have piloted special programs to reduce suspensions and expulsions; they include mandatory mental health screening and stepped-up outreach for youths in trouble.”

Even if mental illness were the major driver of school shootings and other violent events, it’s not easy to diagnose—and there are laws that limit what treatments can be imposed against a person’s will.

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School gather before a meeting with senators in the Senate Building at the Florida State Capitol.

So, what are schools doing for children who have urgent needs? What support systems are available both pre- and post-shooting?

Many experts contend that school psychologists play a key role in evaluating students’ mental health. These professionals aren’t the same as school counselors, who tend to address academic and social issues. Instead, they’re trained (usually with an advanced degree at the Master’s level or higher) to help schools support students’ mental health, set up behavioral rewards systems, and screen for mental health issues. They also provide counseling, crisis work, and behavior management.

In the 2014–2015 school year, there were just under 1,400 students per school psychologist in the United States. The National Association of School Psychologists suggests that the ideal ratio should be more like 500–700 to one.

Those figures will likely only get worse. “Twenty percent of school psychologists will retire in the next five years,” said Andria Amador, senior director of Behavioral Health Services for the Boston Public Schools. “That will make the shortage higher at a national level.”

Usually, the process of getting a student help begins with an administrator or teacher who spots an issue. Then that person makes a referral to a school psychologist or another mental health expert for testing or counseling. The entire referral process can take three months to get done, Greene says, and it’s labor-intensive for the psychologist who is responsible. On top of that, “frequently the testing comes back and the kid doesn’t fit neatly into any of the categories the school has available in terms of offering help.” Greene also notes that outsourcing these difficulties leaves the teacher—who knows the student’s strengths, weaknesses, and temperamental tendencies—out of the equation.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), introduced by Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and signed by President Obama in 2015, called for school psychologists to help in building Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), which basically breaks down the educational experience into tiers: school-wide programs, small group behavior interventions, and individualized attention.

The overall goal is to give teachers the tools to deal with a variety of mental and emotional health issues. Other programs have similar aims, including Sandy Hook Promise, an organization that works with districts like the Boston Public Schools to assess threats, teach students inclusivity, and train teachers to watch for warning signs.

“If a kid is going home to something that isn’t ideal, he should still be able to rely on his classroom, peers, and teachers,” Greene said.

WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND

We loved this conversation between Twitter users about the value of science documentaries.

Navin Pokala writes, “Most of what I know about science comes from watching @novapbs as a kid; School, classes, just icing on top!” And later in the thread, Navin uses NOVA’s “The Case of the Frozen Addict” as just one inspiring example.

Thanks, Navin!

WHAT’S ON OUR MIND

RIP George Bigelow, 66th Infantry Division veteran, who passed away on Monday.

Bigelow’s story was included in a NOVA special, “D-Day’s Sunken Secrets” in 2014. The two-hour documentary revisits the June 6, 1944, invasion of Hitler’s Europe from technological and archaeological perspectives.

Shawn Gjøderum wrote on our Facebook post commemorating him: “RIP George. We will never let our younger generations forget the unfathomable sacrifice you and your fellow men and women made to make the world a better place.” Thank you, Shawn!

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To physicists, curling presents the most puzzling conundrum in the Olympic Games. Check out our video on curling’s mysterious ways, and complement it with this piece in The New Yorker and this video from The Washington Post. And don’t miss last week’s edition of NOVA Lens, in which we covered the science of Olympian achievement.

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Have a question for NOVA? Want to see us cover something in the news? Let us know—tweet at @novapbs, use the hashtag #NOVALens, send us a direct message, or email us at nova_lens@wgbh.org. We might give you a shout-out in next week’s newsletter.

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POSTSCRIPT

This tweet from science writer Corey Powell is like a modern-day Pale Blue Dot.

This is about the distance between Earth and Mars when they are closest to each other. It’s also about 165 times farther away from us than the Moon.

This is a breathtaking photo, made all the more awesome when you realize that when it was taken, the spacecraft was moving away from Earth at a speed of 19,000 miles per hour.

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See you next week,

Allison and the NOVA team