Schooled on Safety
Paying attention to red flags
Sara, a high school student in Houston, had been noticing some changes in one of her friends for a few months.
He had always been a little odd. He had a hard time being still, was always pacing. He refused to use his school locker, lugging every book and notebook with him everywhere in a heavy book bag. He told her he was on medications for a psychiatric disorder. “He was very straightforward about it,” she says. “I wouldn’t have been.”
That didn’t bother her. They were good friends, had many of the same classes, spent a lot of time talking.
In junior year, though, she noticed changes. His grades took a nosedive. He said he wasn’t getting along with his parents. He told her he didn’t think his medications were working.
And he seemed angry. One day, while they were, she thought, joking, he suddenly raised his hand as if to strike her and said, “You make me so mad, I could hit you.” Later the same day, in another class, he threatened to hit her again.
“I realized this was serious; he really was angry and really was holding himself back from hitting me,” says Sara (not her real name). She told a counselor at school.
“I was crying,” she says. “I didn’t want to get him in trouble.”
The counselor did all the right things. She reassured Sara that her friend would not get in trouble. She sought out the boy, brought him to her office and talked with him for hours. He was, indeed, suicidal and stayed with her until he could be brought to a hospital. (Sara, who has since graduated, is no longer in touch with her friend, although she hears he got the medical treatment he needed and is doing OK.)
At the time, Sara did exactly what she should have. “She shared the information she had and she was plugged in enough and paying attention enough to notice changes in her friend,” says Rania Mankarious, executive director of Crime Stoppers of Houston.
Crime Stoppers of Houston has run its Safe School Institute since 1997, providing free presentations to schools throughout Houston on 15 topics related to safety, from cyber safety to dating violence. After the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, it expanded to the elementary-school level.
Part of the program has always been to encourage students to use Crime Stoppers’s anonymous tip line (at 713-222-TIPS (8477), online at crime-stoppers.org or through the Crime Stoppers Houston mobile app) if they see something concerning.
After all, according to a database of press accounts kept by Everytown for Gun Safety, there have been at least 53 incidents of gunfire on school grounds in the United States from January to July of this year. That averages out to almost two incidents per week.
And suicide is an even larger problem among teenagers. Currently, according to a recent report from the National Center for Health Statistics, teenage deaths by suicide outnumber teenage deaths by homicide: 2,553 in the United States in 2016 versus 1,963. The Houston Chronicle cited another recent report, this one from the Centers for Disease Control, that 12 percent of all Texas high school students attempted suicide in 2017.
Because of tips, Crime Stoppers of Houston has been involved in handling almost 2,000 school-related, criminal and safety cases since 1997. In almost 300 of these, investigators found and removed weapons from Houston schools. Whether they involve weapons or not, these cases can be serious. In one, in 2017, a ninth grader allegedly planned to set off bombs in his school’s cafeteria, then shoot his classmates as they fled. In another, in 2016, a freshman had 58 different prescription drugs in his locker and was allegedly selling them to fellow students. In 2008, a 17 year old was asking around about ordering a hit on a 15-year-old girl he felt had caused his girlfriend to break up with him. Because of the tip Crime Stoppers of Houston received, investigators were able to arrange for him to meet an undercover officer posing as a hitman. When the 17 year old allegedly offered the officer $150 and some drugs to kill the girl, he was arrested.
And now, after the May shooting at Santa Fe High School that left 10 dead and 13 wounded, just 35 miles south of Houston, Crime Stoppers of Houston expanded its program to include a mental health-education and bullying- and suicide-prevention program called Be Nice, developed by the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan.
“Students are the first line of intelligence,” says Mankarious. “By the time teachers, school-based law-enforcement or parents realize, it may be too late. We can leverage the fact that students are the first ones to notice changes” in their schoolmates.
The program gives students information they need so they know what to do if someone seems troubled. Originally created to prevent suicides and bullying, the Be Nice program is not about fearing and shunning people with mental disorders. It is meant to decrease the stigma surrounding mental illness, not increase it. Currently, almost 80 percent of children and nearly half of all adults with mental illness don’t receive treatment. The No. 1 reason people give for not seeking help: fear of the stigma of being labelled mentally ill.
“If we can have these conversations early, giving people more of an understanding of mental illness, there can be less violence,” says Christy Buck, executive director of the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan. The more people in the community understand about mental illness – and the Be Nice program is also taught in workplaces and churches – the greater the chance that they will recognize the onset of a problem, the first changes that signal that someone is beginning to struggle, and will know what to do to get that person help.
Although the Be Nice program originated to prevent suicides, Mankarious says it also works to prevent violence against others. “Some suicidal kids are so angry, they are also homicidal,” she points out. “They want to kill the kids they feel tormented them before they take their own lives.” According to researchers, mass shooters often harbor intense anger and are often so-called “dangerous injustice collectors,” seeking violent revenge for real or perceived slights.
The Be Nice program is meant to be “an action plan,” says Buck, and provides concrete information about what to look for – changes lasting more than two weeks, such as quitting activities the person used to love and isolating from family and friends, seeming more angry, and changing in a concerning way how they dress or how they use social media.
Be Nice then teaches and emphasizes what a bystander can do. For students, one piece of advice is to speak with an adult about their concerns. According to a report on targeted school violence (when a student specifically attacks a school or a member of the school community) from the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center, in most such attacks, students had information about the attacker’s plan but did not tell an adult. This report goes on to say that students need to know they can bring their concerns to an adult in a way that will be kept anonymous and confidential and that their information will be followed up on. The report further emphasizes something Be Nice and the Safe School Institute programs do: students need to hear that there is a “big difference between ‘snitching,’ ‘ratting,’ or ‘tattling,’ and seeking help.”
Is this the total solution to school shootings? No, of course not, and most everyone has strong opinions on the topic. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s School and Firearm Safety Action Plan, published at the end of May, recommends everything from “hardening” school buildings and having more law-enforcement officers present at schools to adopting a “red flag” law, in which a judge can temporarily take away a person’s guns if they pose a threat to themselves or others, and mandating that information that would preclude a person from buying a gun be entered into the background-check system within 48 hours. This action plan also calls for an expansion of Crime Stoppers programs in schools.
Both Crime Stoppers’ Mankarious and Be Nice’s Buck stress their efforts are not meant to vilify people suffering from mental illness. After all, according to the American Mental Health Counselors Association, people with mental illness, including severe mental illness, are rarely violent. Only three to five percent of all violent acts can be attributed to severe mental illness. People with mental illness are, says Buck, more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators of it.
“It’s not about creating a culture of fear,” Mankarious says. “It’s not about isolating people. It’s about embracing people, coming together and looking out for each other.”
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