Experts: Increasing mental health services is key to addressing school violence
There's no easy solution for preventing school shootings. But providing more mental health resources to schools and communities is key to addressing the problem, experts say.
"The reality is that the need keeps growing and we are always trying to catch up," said Janeth Barba, director of clinical services for Family Service Association of Greater Elgin.
Barba was among a panel of experts leading a discussion Tuesday about gun violence in schools at the Centre of Elgin.
She said her agency has seen a 16% yearly increase in the number of people needing mental health services over the last few years.
The event followed seven showings last week of Elgin Community College Theatre's play "Columbinus" at the ECC Arts Center. The production explored the events surrounding the April 20, 1999, school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Two teens shot and killed 13 people, including 12 fellow students and a teacher, and wounded more than 20 others before killing themselves.
A cast of 15 students retold the story, weaving together actual words of Columbine parents, survivors and community leaders, and showing documented footage.
"We always pick shows that will have impact, raise questions, and make people change behaviors," said Susan Robinson, ECC theater instructor and program coordinator who directed it. "We are becoming somewhat immune to (school shootings), somewhat numb to it."
At the time, the Columbine massacre was considered the worst high school shooting in U.S. history. It prompted a national discourse on gun control and school safety that continues to be debated with each new school shooting.
Columbine was a watershed moment for police agencies forever changing the training and tactics used to handle active shooter events, said Elgin Police Cmdr. Rick Ciganek.
This also is the first year schools have been mandated to have "Run. Fight. Hide" drills to prepare for such events, he added.
Since 2000, there have been 789 incidents involving guns in schools nationwide -- the highest was 110 in 2018 followed by 78 in 2019, according to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School.
So far this year, there have been 45 school shootings -- nearly an average of one school shooting a week.
Speakers said more efficiently documenting and addressing bullying in schools, increasing cooperation among educators, law enforcement and social service agencies, and recognizing and reporting telltale signs of disturbed youth are key strategies for early intervention.
"If you see something, say something" is more than a slogan, says Sarah Seberger, Kane County assistant state's attorney.
She added that bullying follows students home through social media channels, and everyone needs to be vigilant about reporting it.
The prevalence of school shootings and required active shooter drills have desensitized students to some extent, says Mary Abbott, Elgin Area School District U-46's lead social worker.
"They don't cause as much anxiety anymore," she said.
Meanwhile, more students are coming to the district with adverse childhood experiences and trauma, which is why U-46 has invested heavily in social-emotional learning and trauma-informed teaching techniques, Abbott said.
U-46 social workers and some employees are trained to do comprehensive assessments of students who exhibit signs of harming others or themselves. "We are moving in the right direction to identify kids and provide them assistance earlier," she added.