In Our View: Ounce of Prevention

Local school districts take steps to help troubled students before tragedy strikes

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There is no cure for the mass shootings that have become all too common in our society. But, as local schools are demonstrating, an ounce of prevention can go a long way.

Locally, this came to the forefront recently when an 11-year-old sixth-grader at Frontier Middle School in the Evergreen district was accused of bringing a handgun and 400 rounds of ammunition to school. Court documents assert that the student, who is in custody pending charges, had brought the gun to school on two previous occasions before being caught. In other words, our community may have lucked out in this case, which is a sad commentary on the world today.

And while Clark County avoided a tragedy this time around, news reports frequently remind us that mass shootings can happen anywhere. The prospect is particularly terrifying at schools, a fact that has led to examinations of how teachers and administrators assess troubled students and threats of violence.

"Usually, a student will do something or say something that will get the attention of an administrator," Scott Deutsch, risk manager at Evergreen Public Schools, told Columbian reporter Susan Parrish. Yet, there remains a fine and difficult-to-distinguish line between a student who is venting frustration and one who is posing a viable threat.

In Clark County, if staff determines that a student might pose a threat, a team of adults — teachers, administrators, and parents — is gathered to perform a Level I screening. About 200 such screenings are held each year for the roughly 60,000 students in the area's public schools. If a threat is determined to be serious, a safety plan is formulated to assist the student. "Sometimes that plan is successful," Deutsch said. "Sometimes additional problems show up and the team moves to a Level II assessment."

Level II involves a threat assessment team with various areas of expertise, such as juvenile justice, mental health, or family services. About 85 Level II assessments are conducted each year.

Yes, schools go well beyond reading, writing, and 'rithmetic these days, all in the name of keeping students safe. Still, nationally, mass shootings continue to raise debate over gun violence while generating questions that have no simple answers.

"It's not a predictive science we're working with," Barb Laurenzo, threat assessment coordinator for Educational Service District 112, told The Columbian earlier this year. "It's a very complicated picture."

In the foreground of that picture is the issue of mental health. While various reports have suggested that only 4 percent of violence in the country can be attributed to people with mental illness, we would argue that anybody who engages in a mass shooting is disturbed.

Perhaps the most important aspect of prevention is for our culture to move beyond the stigma that is associated with mental illness. Most mentally ill people are not dangerous to others, yet they often are shunned or avoided. Such a stigma often prevents those who are suffering from confiding their illness to others or seeking help. While we greet those suffering from, say, cancer or heart disease with empathy, the mentally ill often do not receive the same kind of support. In most cases, they suffer from something that can be managed, allowing them to be contributing members of society.

Of course, the issues involved are much too complex to be solved with such simplistic navel-gazing. But those issues continue to become more and more relevant as shootings become more and more common. As local school officials know, such shootings can happen anywhere.