After School Shooting, This Indiana District Sees Mental Health as Strategy to Curb Suicide, Violence

Located northeast of Indianapolis, the suburb of Fishers is known for its affluence and low crime. Citing its “entrepreneurial spirit,” Money magazine recently named the city America’s best place to live.

During a ride-along with a police officer a few years back, however, Mayor Scott Fadness learned of a darker side to the city. Fadness asked the officer which emergency calls bothered him the most, expecting to hear about domestic violence or high-speed pursuits.

He was wrong.

“Immediate detentions” were the top concern, the officer responded. Once per shift in the city of roughly 90,000 residents, officers detain people — including students — because they present a threat to themselves or others.

Even in this wealthy enclave, Fadness realized, residents’ mental health had fallen off the radar.

“I asked our public-safety individuals initially, ‘What are we doing around the issue of mental health?’ And, to be frank with you, the answer was ‘Nothing, really,’” Fadness told The 74. “No one really felt it was part of their core mission to address this issue.”

In response, Fadness launched a citywide effort to build up mental health supports, including a large focus on the city’s schools. The schools got new therapists, emergency response officials received new training, and public officials — from school employees to police — began working more collaboratively.

And though suicide prevention motivated the push, tragedy in May opened the mayor’s eyes to another potential benefit. In Noblesville, a neighboring Indianapolis suburb, a gunman opened fire in a middle school, injuring a teacher and a student.

Like a lot of school districts across the country this year, particularly after the mass school shootings in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe, Texas, officials in Fishers began examining its school safety procedures. While many have turned to enhancing school security, Fishers took a different approach.

Although some parents urged Fadness to “harden the target” with metal detectors and other security, he resisted. Instead, he said, the best approach is to identify at-risk students and provide them with supports.

“That’s what happens time and time again in these violent situations: These kids get further and further isolated from society,” Fadness said. “If we can re-enter them and assimilate them back into the culture by wrapping around services, that would be the appropriate course.”

Addressing student needs

Fadness laid out a scenario he said is common in America: A police officer pulls over a teen with a loaded gun who is “quoting Bible verses” and planning violence. In most situations, he said, officers detain young people and drop them off at a mental health facility.

Following an evaluation, he said, the individual is often released the following morning and school officials aren’t informed about the student’s bad night. Things are different in Fishers. Through a memorandum of understanding with the police department and a local mental health care provider, school officials are looped in from the beginning.

When a child leaves the hospital, a district crisis liaison then visits the student and helps them transition back into school, said Brooke Lawson, the mental health and school counseling coordinator at Hamilton Southeastern Schools. For example, the liaison discusses with students how they can explain to classmates where they’ve been, or how to adjust class schedules to make the school day less stressful.

When Fishers began its mental health push three years ago, it increased the number of therapists in schools and created new student clubs that aim to curb stigma. Since then, the number of students receiving care has soared.

Before the initiative launched, the district had two mental health therapists who provided supports to about 50 of the district’s 22,000 students. Now, there are 14 therapists and a crisis liaison serving the district’s 22 campuses. Last year, 859 students were referred for mental health supports and 600 of them received therapy at school.

Lawson said the two-week window after a student is discharged from the hospital is the most critical time to provide interventions. That’s why schools are a natural place to offer the services.

A lot of students in this wealthy enclave experience pressure to perform well in school, Lawson said. The top mental health diagnoses among young people in the community, she said, are anxiety and stress-related disorders. According to a student survey, fear of failure was a large concern.

By lowering the stigma so people seek help, and by approaching them when they exhibit troubling behaviors, Fadness argues the district has reduced disciplinary incidents and improved student performance.

Whether the strategy could reduce the threat of an active shooter, however, remains the source of an ongoing national debate.

Earlier this year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released a report studying the pre-attack behaviors of gunmen who carried out mass shootings between 2000 and 2013. The report found that the shooters didn’t share common traits that could allow officials to identify potential shooters based on demographics alone. Of active shooters in the study, for example, 25 percent had been diagnosed with a mental illness. But a Secret Service report, which focused on mass shootings in 2017, found that nearly two-thirds of gunmen experienced mental health symptoms prior to the attacks, including paranoia and suicidal thoughts.

The connection to mental illness is even more tenuous when the scope is broadened beyond mass shooters. A study released in 2016 by the American Psychiatric Association found that people with serious mental illness represent just 1 percent of firearm homicides each year.

In fact, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, said Katherine Cowan, spokeswoman for the National Association of School Psychologists. Still, she said, adequate mental health supports are crucial to maintaining safe schools, in part because school safety extends far beyond statistically rare shootings. Psychologists also provide help to students who don’t have a diagnosable mental illness, she said. Students could be struggling with trauma or grief if, for example, they recently lost a loved one.

That’s exactly what is happening in Fishers.

“If Jimmy has a kill list written down,” he may not suffer from a specific mental illness, Fadness said, adding that the student is “crying out for some kind of help.” Officials could help the student learn how to interact with other children at school or how to handle problems at home. “But the fact of the matter is, you still have to put the resources in place to help that child assimilate or be a part of society.”

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