The Florida school shooting again leaves us asking how to end these senseless deaths. Veteran high school principal Burnie Hibbard posted the following commentary on Facebook; he just happens to be my brother.
The first step in fixing shooting at high schools in America: There needs to be a better provision for principals at all levels who believe a child is a risk to other students to remove these students from a regular school.
Let’s take an historical look at what happened with shootings at schools (from Wikipedia’s statistics on school shootings): In the 1800’s a small percentage of students were in high schools, mostly smaller high schools. There was one recorded shooting at school in the 1800’s. As cities grew, high schools grew and the expectation for all students to go to high school increased. From 1900 to about 1970 the nation averaged about 14 shootings per year at school.
Since the 70’s we have seen two simultaneous events: 1.The increase in serving all students in school due to Special Education laws, increased graduation requirements, higher age requirements before dropping out, and general societal expectations that all students will go to college. 2. We have seen a significant decrease in hospitalization for mental illness with an increase in medication for mental illness. I suppose we might all agree these are in concept good. Together it means we have more mentally ill students in our schools than at any time in history.
I have served in administration for 21 years starting in 1995 at a high school of over 1,000 students. During these years I have taken knives, guns and a bomb from students. I’ve deal with threats and rumors and have used metal detectors at a prom. The threats were not all by mentally ill students and not all of our mentally ill students were dangerous. However, the first two assaults on staff members were made by a student who had previously spent seven years of his life in a mental institution. Now, that student would never have been institutionalized. Thirty years earlier he would have never been allowed out to attend a public high school. The correct choice is someplace in between these two extremes.
During my years dealing with discipline and threats at school I have dealt with reports from students, parents, police and the FBI. All of the threats were taken seriously and treated seriously. However, special education laws prevented keeping certain high risk students off the campus for long periods of time. Removing them for short periods of time often just made the students more angry and frustrated. Our counselors do a great job but they are not equipped to treat the truly mentally ill even though special education laws often require these very students attend regular public schools. (Let’s be realistic most charter schools and private schools would not take them.) Due to special education laws and the interpretation of special education laws, we now accept and expect behavior in our public schools that previously was only seen in mental institutions or jails.
Most of the shooters in the recent mass murders at high schools have been deemed mentally ill. So many voices are crying out to fix our services for the mentally ill. This would be a good first step! However, we can not fix our laws on mentally ill children without revising our laws for special education. There needs to be a better provision for principals who believe a child is a risk to other students and themselves to have more options than we currently have for these high risk children.