When Madeline Sells first heard about the massacre this week at a Texas elementary school, she was saddened and in tears, but not at all surprised.
A counselor in Spokane Public Schools, she works every day with poor children who experience trauma at home. And instead of finding refuge at school, they were harassed on social media before walking through the front door.
“It’s one of the most telling things, and it happens every day,” Sells said of children, especially girls, who often find “awful things” on their phones. In some cases, this means that pornography, even child pornography, is sent via fake profiles on TikTok, Instagram and other media.
An increase in student mental health needs, combined with staffing shortages and widespread episodes of misbehavior and violence, has increased the burden on school counselors and psychologists. For one of these bullied kids to become a killer is too gruesome for Sells to contemplate. But she fears a lack of funding in schools and hospitals could increase the chances of a violent incident. Sells’ current position is funded by COVID relief dollars that will run out in two years.
“I can tell you that therapists are struggling,” Erich Merkle, a school psychologist in Akron, Ohio, told Education Week recently.
“The slogan I would go with is that the kids are not well,” Merkle said.
The problem has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced children to learn remotely and “return to trauma,” Sells said.
Gone are the friendly faces of teachers, counselors and friends, while online bullying has followed some home. For some, the anxiety was so great that they continued to wear face coverings long after the mask mandate was canceled.
“They spent so much time away from their peers that they were afraid others would see their faces,” said Sells, who currently works at several North Side schools and will move into the new Denny Yasuhara Middle School this fall.
But childhood depression and anxiety were on the rise nationwide for years before the pandemic, experts say.
The return to in-person classes has been accompanied by a growing number of school shootings, experts say, who say clashes are ending in gunfire as more students bring guns to school. ‘school. Teachers say disrespect and defiance have increased, and tempers are shorter and flare up faster.
Sells once dealt with a college student who had murderous thoughts — “she wanted to kill her brother,” Sells said.
Police were called to the school, but the youngsters said they no longer felt that way and there was no more room at a local establishment.
The shooting that occurred earlier this month in Buffalo highlighted the failure of some schools and agencies to adequately screen those with the potential for violence.
When accused Buffalo shooter Payton Gendron was asked in the spring of 2021 by a teacher at his high school in Binghamton, New York, about his plans after graduation, he replied that he wanted to commit murder- suicide, according to law enforcement.
The comment prompted a state police call and a mental health evaluation at a hospital, where he claimed he was joking and was allowed to attend his graduation.
Spokane County is no stranger to mass gun violence.
Sells was one of the first responders at Freeman High School in 2017, when Caleb Sharpe, then 15, killed a student and injured three others.
The tragedy has colored the way Sells approaches his work. On a recent visit to Yasuhara Middle School, she noted the preponderance of glass – beautiful to behold, but a poor barrier against intruders or their bullets.
“That’s the first thing I noticed,” said Sells, who was relieved to learn that the building also had interior security doors in the hallways as well as individual classrooms.
With the threat of school violence ever-present, experts have tried to offer advice to students and families.
Debbie Wiechert, a social worker at Meadow Ridge Elementary in the Mead School District, says she often starts conversations by “letting the kids know they’re safe at school and we can talk about all the things that we can do to be safe in our schools.”
Parents should pay attention to little things like their children’s appetites, sleeping patterns and other behaviors – “tell-tale signs” that something is wrong.
And for students who are reluctant to report suspicious behavior or comments from another child, she reminds them that many schools have anonymous hotlines.
Wiechert urged children to “talk about it if you hear something that scares you or makes you nervous.”