By Dr. Howie Knoff
Another Heartbreaking Opportunity
My cell phone rang at [3:49] PM Uvalde Central Time. Tuesday, May 24, 2022. It was a close colleague of mine, also a Past-President of the National Association of School Psychologists, who lives in Atlanta. Her voice was both frenetic and frank.
“Are you watching the News?”
“No. . . what’s going on?”
“It’s happened again. . . elementary school students killed in their classrooms in Texas. Why G-d? What are people thinking? Why is this allowed to keep happening?”
“Oh no!. . . you know that every time I walk into my schools, I remind myself that it can happen here.”
“And it’s not just the schools. The streets. . . of Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore. They are killing our children. . . . “
Yes, it has happened again. Nineteen elementary school children—all about the age of my granddaughter—and two teachers. . . mothers, dedicated professionals, heroes. Fifteen others were sent immediately to the local hospital. Four are still hospitalized as of Thursday, May 26.
All of those murdered have been identified. They are not coming home.
Alexandria Aniyah Rubio, 10 years old
Alithia Ramirez, 10 years old
Amerie Jo Garza, 10 years old
Annabell Rodriguez, 10 years old
Eliahana Cruz Torres, 10 years old
Eliahna Garcia , 10 years old
Jacklyn Cazares, 9 years old
Jailah Nicole Silguero, 10 years old
Jayce Luevanos, 10 years old
Jose Flores, 10 years old
Layla Salazar, 10 years old
Makenna Lee Elrod, 10 years old
Miranda Mathis, 11 years old
Neveah Bravo, 10 years old
Rogelio Torres, 10 years old
Tess Marie Mata
Uziyah Garcia, 8 years old
Xavier Javier Lopez, 10 years old
Eva Mireles, 4th Grade Teacher
Irma Garcia, 4th Grade Teacher
How do you respond? What do you say?
How do we finally decrease the chances that this will occur again—knowing that there are only progressive, and not ultimate or permanent, solutions?
It is easy to “factualize” the murder of school children with weapons of war.
According to Education Week, there have been 77 previous incidents of gunfire on school grounds this year, resulting in 14 deaths and 45 injuries.
It’s been 24 years since five people were killed at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas; 23 years since 13 were killed at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado; nearly 10 years since 26 were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut; and four years since 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. . . and on and on. . .
And then, there are the killings of children and adolescents on our streets and in their homes. On April 22nd of this year, The New England Journal of Medicine reported that:
- More children and teenagers in the United States were killed by guns than any other cause in 2020, according to a mortality analysis by researchers from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
- Guns surpassed car crashes as the top cause of death in America for those aged 19 and under in 2020, the analysis, based on recent mortality data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, shows.
That is the first time guns have been the leading cause of death for this age group, according to the study, which was published in The New England Journal of Medicine as a letter to the editor.
But It’s Not Just the Guns: Mental Health Needs to be on the Table
Now just a few days after the Uvalde shootings, an initial biography of the 18-year-old killer has emerged.
Teased or bullied early in his school career for speech problems, his clothing, or his family’s socio-economic status, the killer also had some tell-tale mental health issues: few friends, anger and aggression—including with his mother, threats and inappropriate social media messages to girls, academic failure and school absences, allegations of him hurting cats, self-injurious behavior.
A survey, published by the Springtide Research Institute just one day before the Uvalde mass murder, reported that almost a third of the students who thought about visiting a school counselor, therapist, or psychologist ended up not doing so because “they didn’t think their issues ‘were big enough to bother someone with’ or felt like they would be judged.”
Covered in K-12 Dive, this survey involved a nationally representative sample of 4,038 teens and young adults. Among the other findings:
- 45% of the respondents said they hesitate to see a therapist because their parents don’t take their concerns seriously, 53% said they wouldn’t want their parents to know they were meeting with a school counselor or therapist, and 51% said they fear school staff might treat them differently or give them fewer opportunities at school.
- Relative to fears regarding a “mental health stigma,” Hispanic and Latino students were most likely to say they hesitated speaking with a counselor or therapist out of fear of judgment, while Black students were most likely to say their parents or guardians don’t take their mental health concerns seriously.
In addition, the K-12 Dive article reported that:
- Relative to LGBTQ students, 76% reported feeling greater levels of poor mental health, emotional abuse by a parent or guardian, and suicide attempts, according to data released in April (2022) by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s compared to 37% of heterosexual students feeling that way.
- The CDC data also showed that Black students, along with Asian students, were the groups most likely to say they experienced racism. In Springtide Research Institute’s survey, Black students also were the least likely to say they have a trusted adult at school and most likely to say their school mental health professional ”might not understand me or the challenges I am having” due to racial or ethnic differences.
- A separate survey, released in early May (2022) by The Trevor Project, found recent declines in the share of LGBTQ students saying their mental health was poor most of the time or always during the pandemic. Despite this, nearly two-thirds of LGTBQ students said they could not get the mental health counseling they sought in the past year.
Clearly, there are many mental health issues and needs in our schools today. And there are not enough mental health professionals available—even though enough money is available right now to hire them.
Thus, many of our students are not getting the attention, support, and psychological care that they need.
Summer is almost here. Some of our students may internalize their emotions toward self-harm and other physical problems; others may externalize their emotions through aggression and acts of violence.
Some may do both.
History versus Politics
There’s no skirting around the issue.
What began as a historical right to defend our country and its sovereignty has become a political issue that allows assault weapons to be purchased by 18-year-olds.
The 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (adopted on December 17, 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights states:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
The vast majority of Americans in this country—on both “sides of the aisle” favor different facets of gun control. And yet, what has been acknowledged by many of our Representatives, remains unresolved by some of our Senators.
Even if you are not a fan of CNN, please indulge me and listen to John Avlon’s piece from May 26, 2022:
Unfortunately, I have had to write more than half a dozen blogs responding to school shootings that have occurred, and how they might have been prevented.
The September, 2018 blog followed the killing of 17 people at Parkland High School (FL) the Valentine’s Day before. Anticipating the largely useless Federal Commission on School Safety Report, I emphasized (a) the successful gun legislation already enacted by many states; (b) how schools could address the social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health needs of students; and (c) the steps that schools can take to develop a targeted Violence Prevention Plan that includes important threat assessment procedures.
“Preventing School Shootings and Violence. States (Wisely) Not Waiting for the Federal Commission on School Safety Report: The Guidance You Need is Here and Available”
Much of the functional information in this blog is still relevant.
And yet, perhaps today, we need more emotion—as we try to deal with another school massacre—than information.
It’s OK for Emotion to Drive Decision Making
Many know that I often emphasize the importance of teaching students emotional awareness, control, communication, and coping skills. And this week’s Uvalde horror has triggered a wide range of emotions across the country.
For some, there is anger that another 21 individuals will soon be buried, and that countless families and an entire community has been devastated.
For others, there are renewed waves of trauma—for example, in Parkland, Newtown, Littleton, Jonesboro, and elsewhere—echoing reminders of past events and losses.
Critically, for change to occur, we must sometimes express our strong emotions. . .our outrage, our hopelessness, our resolve.
Indeed, in order to cope, we sometimes must communicate these emotions. . . while maintaining both the control and awareness that emotion can drive decision-making.
Many of us have tried to address the importance of gun control (not gun prohibition) and the need to destigmatize mental health services using logic, facts, and debate.
Maybe it is time to emotionally react as Steve Kerr did, so that the emotional grief of Adalynn Ruiz can be eliminated in the future.
Steve Kerr, the coach of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, lost his Dad to gun violence. And, Adalynn Ruiz is the daughter of Eva Mireles—one of the teachers killed at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde both just two days ago.
Please listen to their words.
From Steve Kerr:
From Adalynn Ruiz (in her Facebook post):
To the half that makes me whole,
Mom, I have no words to describe how I feel right now, tomorrow, and for the rest of my life. I never thought that I would be here writing this type of post for you.
Mom, you are a hero.
I keep telling myself that this isn’t real. I just want to hear your voice. I want to hear you talking to our dogs with that silly voice you make so high that wakes everyone up in the morning. I want to hear you say “Nanis, wake up already, man!” Because I keep snoozing my alarm.
I want to hug you one last time and I want to feel the calluses on your hands because you were not only a teacher during the day, but the most hardworking cross fitter in the afternoon. I want to be able to get out of work and expect your call at [4:30] every day because that’s the first thing you would do as soon as you got out. I want to see you sitting on the couch you claimed was only yours sitting with our dogs.
I want to send you Tik Toks and say them over and over until dad gets tired of us. I want to annoy you and wake you up from naps just so you can check on my chicken and make sure I didn’t under cook it. I want to sing karaoke with you and hear you sing “ shine bright like diamond!” In your loudest voice, I want to fight with you for the stupidest things and then laugh with you after . I want everything back.
I want you to come back to me, Mom. I miss you more than words can explain. My beautiful mom, thank you for the funniest memories. Thank you for the best times of my life. Thank you for being my best friend. Thank you for being the best mom anyone could ask for.
You are so known by many now and I’m so happy that people know your name and that beautiful face of yours and they know what a hero looks like.
I don’t know how to do this life without you, but I will take care of dad. I will take care of our dogs and I will forever say your name so you are always remembered, Eva Mireles, 4th grade teacher at Robb Elementary who selflessly jumped in front of her students to save their lives.
My heart will forever be broken. My best friend, my twin was taken from me. Thank you for loving me in the best ways and for raising me to become so strong. Everyone who knows you knows how outgoing and funny you were and I will miss your laugh forever. I want to thank you mom, for being such an inspiration to me. I will forever be so proud to be your daughter. My sweet mommy, I will see you again.
Thank you so much to everyone who has reached out during this difficult time, my family will always be so grateful for all of the love and support. Thank you for remembering my mom and sharing what a Hero she is. My condolences go out to all of the families who were affected by this tragedy. God bless you all and please hold y’alls’ mommas tight for me.
There are no more words.
Let’s take the prevailing politics out of our original history.
If we care about life, let’s protect the lives of our children. Let’s keep them alive. Gun control and mental health services will not eliminate the problem, but they certainly can’t make things any worse.
Howie Knoff, PhD, NCSP, is an international consultant, speaker, and author specializing in school improvement and strategic planning, social-emotional learning and social skills training, multi-tiered systems of support, and interventions with behaviorally challenging students. He is a practitioner who has also been a university professor (22 years), and State Department of Education federal grant director (13 years). The author of 24 books and 100+ articles/book chapters, he was the 21st President of the National Association of School Psychologists. His Project ACHIEVE website is www.projectachieve.info, and he can be reached at [email protected].