School Tragedies

Very tragically a middle school student in an Upper Peninsula school brought a gun to school, carried it with him and in the middle of the day used the gun to commit suicide. What happened next was predictable, an outpouring of shared shock and grief as well as condolences for the family, school, and community. Next will come the finger pointing.

Some will ask, “How could a someone bring a gun to school, carry it with him, and then use it with no one knowing he had it in school?” Others will blame the school and district for either not knowing the level of crisis the student was in and/or for not knowing the student had the firearm with him in school. These questions will only add to the pain in the community and the school district.

When these tragedies happen it is a normal part of the process to ask what happened and what could have been done. Since the tragic shooting in Oxford, Michigan, we’ve seen this same thing play out with some blaming the school district for what happened.

The saddest thing about all of this hindsightedness is its predictability, followed by the lack of any action that could help schools in a realistic and effective manner. Political systems are too often more prone to reactive rather than the proactive responses that could possibly prevent sad events. In the case of school gun violence we must add that it is apparent that even the simplest of gun laws, say a law requiring gun owners to place trigger locks on guns in their homes, is out of the question in today’s political environment.

Take the case of the U.P. tragedy and the lack of sufficient mental health care in American schools. In response to questions about the event the district superintendent, Bryan DeAugustine noted that the district had been trying to hire a new counselor but, “It’s been hard because not a lot of people are going into counseling these days.” No doubt Mr. DeAugustine is referring to the opportunity given to schools via ESSER funds and the Michigan 31o program that temporarily helps schools hire mental health workers in response to concerns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. These programs are excellent examples of the sorts of knee jerk reactions schools too often get.

Under the 31o/ESSER program schools can apply for a grant from the state to fund school mental health workers or nurses. The funding provides for 100% of the expenses in the first year, 66% of expenses in the second year, 33% of expenses in the third year, and no funds in the fourth year. Does this mean that mental health issues will disappear in a manner concurrent with the financial support? Of course not.

The other problem with this program is that, as Mr. DeAugustine indicates, is that it was made available with zero lead in to the available funding. It is not as if there were a plethora of unemployed, competent health providers sitting around idly hoping for the someday when there would be a global pandemic and then government funds available for schools to hire them. Furthermore, what certified, trained professionals are eager to sign up for jobs that may well disappear when funding begins to seriously dry up three years later?

Schools might have a better chance at identifying and helping prevent school tragedies if, instead of reactive, and temporary programs, they were provided with guaranteed, adequate funding needed to hire and retain mental health professionals as well as even the mildest of gun safety laws. Without such support we will continue to face these tragedies and the hindsight finger-pointing that goes along with it.

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