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updated: 3/24/2013 7:00 AM

Dist. 303 starts community conversation about mental health

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St. Charles Unit District 303 officials recently debated spending more than $350,000 in school security upgrades in the wake of December's Sandy Hook school shootings in Connecticut.

Last week the district began a conversation with the community, hoping to address the issue of what leads someone to commit a mass school shooting in the first place.

The 2013 version of Summit 303 addresses the mental health of the students in district buildings. Previous summits have engaged the community in brainstorming on the topics of student suicide, preparing students for success in the real world, and infrastructure and curriculum changes.

This year, the idea is to show teachers, staff and parents the value of really knowing the mental state of their students and children. That's not always obvious, said Kimberly Svevo-Cianci, co-founder of the Changing Children's Worlds Foundation. The foundation focuses on promoting best practices to ensure childhood survival and development.

Svevo-Cianci told attendees at the first of four summit meetings last week that 7.5 percent of children ages 3 to 17 in Illinois have moderate to severe social or emotional problems. But only 20 percent of those children will receive mental health services. Most school shooters have a history of suicide attempts, Svevo-Cianci said, and statistics show parents are unaware of 90 percent of the suicide attempts made by their teenagers. Half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14. And, while school shootings are relatively rare, they do happen.

"We want to know that our children are safe every day," Svevo-Cianci said. "The three schools involved in recent shoots had locks on their doors, buzzers to bring in visitors and all the same safety and security measures that we have here in District 303," she said. "But they were not immune to the danger or violence, and neither are we."

The warning signs for the making of a school shooter involve children or neighborhoods and schools facing problems of violence or bullying, maltreatment, neglect and poverty, or other special needs, Svevo-Cianci said.

"The two main factors on why a school shooter decides to act are mental illness and social isolation," she said. "As a community, we can do a lot to address both of these issues."

She advised adults to act as proper role models for local youth. That means encouraging peaceful conflict resolution and helping children get counseling or access to other mental health services if needed or wanted. Additionally, the stigma of mental illness or getting counseling must be eliminated as much as possible to encourage the acceptance of help, Svevo-Cianci said.

"If we do not stay closely connected to our children, if we do not offer positive guidance and support, there will be a lot we don't know about them," she said.

The next summit meeting is at 7 p.m. April 24 in the St. Charles East High School Little Theater, 1020 Dunham Road.

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