Education

No easy answers: York County region schools take on rise in student threats, weapons

Rock Hill grad talks mental illness struggle

Megan Hullett, a Rock Hill graduate and a speaker with the National Alliance for Mental Illness, shared her struggle with mental illness and bullying during a mental health symposium.
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Megan Hullett, a Rock Hill graduate and a speaker with the National Alliance for Mental Illness, shared her struggle with mental illness and bullying during a mental health symposium.

Schools are seeing an increase in reports of violence threats, which could reflect a more diligent student body and community, said Melissa Reeves, a nationally certified school psychologist and psychology professor at Winthrop University who helps train educators.

Reeves said there has been more awareness on school security, encouraging people to report and teaching them when to report potential incidents.

“Our students are our best eyes and ears,” she said. “An increase in the number of threats reported does not necessarily mean schools are less safe. Schools are being very proactive.”

There have been several incidents of students in local schools making threats.

A 13-year-old student at Lewisville Middle School in Chester County was charged in late October with making threats at school. The charge came after a drawing of a shooting was found by a teacher, police said.

School officials did not immediately report the incident to police. Prosecutors in Chester County have asked state law enforcement officials to investigate the school’s delay in reporting the threat.

Police were investigating allegations Tuesday that a student at York Preparatory Academy in Rock Hill sent threats on social media to “kill” 10 other students, police said.

Olympic High School in Steele Creek area, in Mecklenburg County, was put on lockdown Tuesday morning after someone pulled a fire alarm before school started. Students reported seeing social media posts that appeared to show someone with a handgun on campus, according to The Charlotte Observer. Police are questioning a juvenile and looking for a second person believed to have been involved in the incident.

A complicated challenge

Education leaders are taking measures to address mental health and threats of violence, Reeves said. She is part of a committee the S.C. Department of Education is forming to set statewide guidelines, protocols and training for school districts to form threat assessment teams. The guidelines will be released early next year.

The teams include school administration and mental health professionals who are trained to recognize warning signs and determine how likely children are to harm themselves or others, Reeves said.

The teams are already in some districts, including Rock Hill and Fort Mill.

The Rock Hill school district this month also started on-campus weapons screenings and a relaunch of its “See Something / Do Something” campaign, which encourages students and others to share information on potential threats.

“In recent weeks, a heightened awareness and vigilance by students and staff has resulted in weapons being found on high school campuses,” Rock Hill Superintendent Bill Cook said last month. “This is alarming, yet comforting to recognize our students and staff feel safe to share information that helps to make our campuses more secure.”

York County region school districts are also taking several steps to address mental illness in students.

They include looking at new ways to approach student discipline and establishing a better understanding of the causes of mental health and behavior problems in students.

Reeves said it is a complicated problem. She said some students struggle with feelings of hopelessness, anger or helplessness.

“They unfortunately see violence as one of the only solutions,” Reeves said. “There is not one easy answer. It’s a complication of a lot of different variables.”

Mental illness does not cause violence, but can be one of many factors in a person’s likelihood to commit violence, Reeves said. Society and social media are contributing factors, she said.

“What is being modeled in our society right now is to lash out at anybody who does not agree with you or who has wronged you,” Reeves said. “It increases the potential for students to see this as another viable option.”

Reeves said some students may resort to violence because they feel the support given to them has not been enough or they have rationalized their right to react in that way.

Another complication is the combination of a high-expectation society, helicopter parenting and social media, Reeves said.

She said some children are not learning the coping skills to work through adversity.

“They are in a constant state of comparison on social media. They are constantly bombarded with someone else’s better,” Reeves said. “It’s kind of that perfect storm.”

That is why interventions are crucial to help get students off a path of violence, Reeves said. She said more community resources are needed.

“We have a completely underfunded and under-resourced mental health system in this country,” Reeves said. “We’re doing all we can with the limited resources we have.”

Amanda Harris: 803-329-4082; @amanda_d_harris
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