When Madeline Sells first heard about the massacre this week at a Texas elementary school, she was saddened and tearful, yet not all that surprised.
A counselor at Spokane Public Schools, she works every day with children of poverty who deal with trauma at home. And instead of finding a safe haven at school, they’ve been bullied on social media before walking in the front door.
“It’s one of the most eye-opening things, and it happens every day,” Sells said of kids, especially girls, who often find “horrific things” on their phones. In some cases, that means pornography, even child porn, is sent via fake profiles on TikTok, Instagram and other media.
A surge in student mental health needs, combined with staff shortages and widespread episodes of misbehavior and violence, has placed more burdens on school counselors and psychologists. Whether one of those bullied children will grow up to be a killer is too awful for Sells to contemplate. But she worries that a lack of funding at schools and hospitals means the chances of a violent incident will increase. Sells’ current position is funded by COVID relief dollars that will run out in two more years.
“I can tell you that therapists are struggling,” Erich Merkle, a school psychologist in Akron, Ohio, told Education Week recently.
“The tagline I would go with is the kids are not all right,” Merkle said.
The problem worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced children into remote learning and “back into trauma,” Sells said.
Gone were the friendly faces of teachers, counselors and friends, while the online bullying followed some home. For some, the anxiety was so great, they continued to wear face coverings long after the mask mandate was rescinded.
“They had so much time away from their peers, there was an anxiety of having others see their faces,” said Sells, who currently works at several North Side schools and will move this fall into the new Denny Yasuhara Middle School.
But childhood depression and anxiety were on the rise nationally for years before the pandemic, experts say.
The return to in-person classes has been accompanied by soaring numbers of school shootings, according to experts who say disputes are ending in gunfire as more students bring weapons to school. Teachers say disrespect and defiance have increased, and tempers are shorter and flaring faster.
Once, Sells dealt with a student who showed homicidal ideations – “she wanted to kill her sibling,” Sells said.
Police were called to the school, but the youth said they no longer felt that way, and there was no room at a local facility.
The shooting earlier this month in Buffalo highlighted the inability of some schools and agencies to adequately screen those who show potential for violence.
When the accused shooter in Buffalo, Payton Gendron, was asked in spring 2021 by a teacher at his Binghamton, New York, high school about his plans after graduation, he responded that he wanted to commit a murder-suicide, according to law enforcement.
The comment resulted in state police being called and a mental health evaluation at a hospital, where he claimed he was joking and was cleared to attend his graduation.
Spokane County is no stranger to mass gun violence.
Sells was an early responder at Freeman High School in 2017, when then-15-year-old Caleb Sharpe killed one student and wounded three others.
The tragedy has colored how Sells approaches her job. During a recent tour of 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 has interior security doors in 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 begins conversations by “letting kids know that they are safe at school, and that we can talk about all the things that we can do to be safe in our schools.”
Parents need to pay attention to little things like their children’s appetite, sleep patterns and other behaviors – “telltale signals” that something isn’t right.
And for students who are hesitant 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 makes you feel scared or nervous.”
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