Former Parkland Principal Calls For Mental Health Wellness Centers in Every School
Five years after the Fla. high school massacre, Ty Thompson says the trauma persists and more federal funding is needed for long-term recovery.
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Updated July 14
In the five years since a gunman walked into a Parkland, Florida, high school, killing 17 people and injuring 17 others, national attention has pivoted to more recent mass school shootings in Michigan, Tennessee and Texas.
Yet in Florida, the community is still grappling with fallout from its own deadly attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Just last week, a first-of-its-kind criminal negligence trial got underway for a former campus police officer who failed to confront the shooter. It wasn’t until November 2022 that the now 24-year-old gunman was sentenced to life in prison and in April, a judge dismissed a criminal perjury charge related to the shooting against the former Broward County schools superintendent.
All these events force Parkland residents to revisit the fatal day. For Ty Thompson, who was the principal of Stoneman Douglas on Feb. 14, 2018, the most pressing issue now is the need for robust campus mental health services, particularly as mass shootings become deadlier and more common.
“You shouldn’t have to wait for a tragedy to have a wellness center,” he told The 74. “Every school should have a wellness center on their campus. That’s just the state that we’re in and we need to keep tabs on what’s happening with our youth to make sure that if there are problems, we can catch them early.”
As a member of the Principal Recovery Network, Thompson and other school leaders who confronted mass shootings and their devastating aftermath visited lawmakers last week on Capitol Hill to advocate for additional help in long-term recovery efforts. Their appearance coincides with June being Gun Violence Prevention Month.
Even after the national attention fizzles away and disaster relief funding dries up, Thompson told The 74, trauma remains omnipresent. Founded in 2019 and supported by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the Principal Recovery Network works to help guide education leaders immediately after campus shootings and to promote policies that help school communities regain stability.
Thompson, who retains his principal title, worked for a time as the district’s assistant director of athletics and student activities and is now assigned to the IT department. He talked to The 74 about a range of issues, from the practical advice he offers school leaders reeling from a shooting to his support for school-based police officers, so long as they aren’t monitoring hallways with AR-15s. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.
It’s been five years since the Parkland shooting. In what ways is that tragedy present in your community today?
One of the things we talked about in Washington, D.C., is that while we got a large influx of resources right away, after a year or so people started to disappear as far as the resources. And so that’s one of the things that we’ve been advocating for is the fact that it doesn’t go away. It just continues.
Even though we’re five years out, there are still things that the school needs. Trauma after an event like this comes in different forms, it hits people at different times over the course of their trauma. For some, it’s right away; for some, it’s a few years later. For some, it’s many years later. We continue to battle that with the recovery pieces in making sure we’re providing the resources needed, not only to former students and to the staff who are still there, but also our community members as well.
Can you provide any specific examples of how that trauma from an event five years ago manifests in your community today?
Unfortunately, we see it almost daily on the news. With new shootings, whether it’s at schools or in communities, that brings everything back. So as those things continue to happen in our country and we are constantly reminded of some of the violence happening in our country, that just brings back that day and they think about what took place with their families, friends or community members around our incident.
It just continues to regurgitate that back up as they go through trying to heal and they are moving toward healing, but as you continue to see this stuff in the news and the daily shootings, it slows down the process.
It’s almost like you take one step forward and two steps back just because of the current environment of things that are going on within our country.
What tangible policy changes did you present to lawmakers in Washington? What do you think are the most critical steps that we need to take right now to combat this issue?
A lot of our stance with the Principal Recovery Network is exactly that: The recovery. While gun control and all of these things are very pressing factors that are going on right now, that is obviously not our expertise.
When you’re a leader of a school and you face a tragedy — it doesn’t have to be a shooting, it could be a tornado taking down a building or suicides and things like that — it’s up to the school leader to be able to help move that school forward.
Our biggest part is the recovery effort, and a big part of that is wellness and mental health. We are really pushing that part because Congress is moving in that direction, with the importance of mental health. We wanted to advocate for some additional funds in that area because we also feel that’s important not only after a tragedy, but at any time for a school.
At Stoneman Douglas, after our event, we instituted a wellness center at our school. We had two portables brought in and we had mental health experts who were staffed in those portables and they were able to serve students, staff and community members. Even to this day, five years later, that wellness center is still on campus and it’s still servicing our community.
One of the things that I brought to Congress was the fact you shouldn’t have to wait for a tragedy to have a wellness center. Every school should have a wellness center on their campus. That’s just the state that we’re in and we need to keep tabs on what’s happening with our youth to make sure that if there are problems, we can catch them early.
When we look at some of the past shooters, not necessarily mine in some cases but in others, there were red flags along the way. There’s got to be a way for us to get the proper help to students that we see early on that may need some help. I think that having wellness centers on campuses would help that scenario. I’m not saying that it’s going to be a cure-all, but it certainly couldn’t hurt to have that.
The Parkland shooter did present multiple missed warning signs prior to the attack. What lessons did you and your colleagues learn about threat assessments and early intervention efforts?
Hindsight is always 20/20. In the case of my school, he was only with me for less than a year, and so a lot of these things that we found out after the fact were prior to him being a student at Stoneman Douglas. I’m not passing the blame on anybody, I’m just saying that there are certain things that take place in a student’s educational record that we need to be sure is moving forward through their careers so that people are aware of what’s happening.
And we’ve made strides in that since our tragedy. With behavioral threat assessments now becoming more digitized and there’s less chance of things falling through the cracks, we definitely have our lessons learned not only from our tragedy, but all of the different tragedies.
The shooting divided the community. How did you navigate that?
That was probably the toughest part of my job for those 18 months after the tragedy was trying to make sure I put student and staff interests first. Right away, the community rallied behind everyone, they wanted to provide support. Then, after time went by, that’s when the fingers started to point. And that’s not uncommon in any situation like this, where they’re going to start to put blame and figure out who did what wrong.
The politics are difficult, don’t get me wrong, but I also understand that’s just what happens. It can’t necessarily be avoided though I would like it to be avoided. With a tragedy like this, everyone has their emotions. Emotions get exponentially kind of out there. Someone that may have already been feeling negative about a situation, now they’re feeling that much more negative.
Following the Uvalde shooting, Texas politicians approved legislation to place armed guards at every K-12 school. Florida took a similar approach after Parkland. How do you think this move played out in your state, and how did it affect the overall safety of kids in your schools?
Look, any time you can have extra security on campus is always a good thing. In our case, in Florida, they want every school to have an armed guard or a school resource officer.
I definitely think that it helps. It’s definitely a good thing, anytime we can increase security and having people feel safe about coming to school is definitely a positive. For the little ones in elementary, when they see people walking around with guns, I’m not quite sure how that could affect their psyche. I just know that when it came to the high school kids, when we got back to school after the tragedy, we had a mini-army on our campus walking around with the same weapon that took out some of our kids. That did not go over well.
It’s a delicate balance between making sure you’re feeling safe versus feeling scared quite frankly. That’s something that we were able to circumvent after our tragedy, to still have this presence but not have to have people walking around with AR-15s because that really was not the best course of action.
As far as legislation, SROs are important. It’s good to have someone on campus, at a minimum, to be able to call in resources in the event of a tragedy. There’s so much tension in the country right now when it comes to violence and how to protect kids without making them feel like they’re in jail. I mean, the school is supposed to be a school and not a prison and it’s definitely a delicate balance, but the more people you can have with eyes and ears out there, it definitely makes it a better situation for all of us.
The former school resource officer at your school was criminally charged and put on trial for failing to confront the gunman and stop the shooting. What lessons from Scot Peterson’s response can we learn about the roles and limitations of police in schools?
Any time there’s an investigation into these kinds of things, they review all those types of policies. I remember after Columbine, they redid how they handle active shooters. Then something else took place and they readjusted policies. That’s the same scenario here. I’m not going to speculate on what he did or didn’t do wrong. I am by no means a law enforcement person, that’s not my expertise and I’m not going to pretend to know what they are supposed to do or not do. But they do review policies after things take place, whether it’s a shooting or it’s some other incident in the community, to determine what could have been done better.
As a member of the Principal Recovery Network, have you had to make any calls with school leaders after they experienced shootings? What kind of advice do you offer?
Unfortunately, I’ve had to make a few phone calls. First, I usually send them an email because trying to get ahold of someone on the phone is nearly impossible. So I usually send an email pretty quickly, within 24 hours of when we hear about it. I just let them know who I am and that I kind of know what you may be feeling right now and, ‘Please, give me a call when you can.’
Sometimes that call comes quickly. Sometimes the call never comes because I’ve reached out to a couple of principals and never heard back from them.
And really, it’s just for me to be a listening ear to them to understand. ‘Look, these are some of the things that may start to come up that you may not be aware of.’ Something very logical like your mail is going to start to increase, so you might want to think about getting some extra staff in there just to handle mail. The phones are going to start ringing off the hook, you need to make sure you have some staff for that. You need to think about getting some additional substitutes because some teachers may not be able to come back right away, depending on the size of their school and the tragedy itself. Make sure you don’t try to get back to school before funerals have taken place.
We have a guide to recovery. It’s not like a playbook because not every tragedy is going to be the same exact scenario. But there are some commonalities across all of these things to just keep in mind. You know, you should be meeting with your staff before you bring students back so that you make sure that they’re ready to come back. You want to make sure you have mental health practitioners on campus and ready to go because there’s no way for you to predict how people are going to react.
The main goal is to let them know that I’m here to listen to them. They can call me at any time, no matter what time of day it is. We want them to feel like they’re not alone.
In his reelection bid, President Joe Biden has made gun violence prevention efforts part of his appeal to young voters. Youth activists from Parkland became leading voices in the gun control movement. Beyond the most outspoken advocates, how do young people in your community view gun violence today and how has the shooting affected their worldviews?
Our kids rallied very quickly and had the March for Our Lives happen in D.C. within six weeks after our tragedy. I really thought that was going to be a momentum changer, and there were a lot of people involved with that. I was hoping that was really going to make some change.
I’m not saying that maybe there weren’t some thought processes changed in Washington, but obviously it remains a hot topic. I do know that many of my kids that were involved from Stoneman Douglas still have those thoughts in mind of changing the world, which is what we teach in high school is getting out there to debate the right way and present yourself in a positive light and try to move the country forward.
A lot of these kids now, five years later, are out of college and some of them are just wrapping up their college careers. It’s going to be interesting to see if they are going to be able to keep the momentum and move it forward with gun control. I’m hoping that continues.
Any time these things do come up in the news, hopefully it re-sparks them to want to try to do something, to move that legislation and those policies forward.
What didn’t I ask that you’d like to discuss?
It’s important that these conversations continue to stay at the forefront. That was the big thing we talked to legislators about because we know that after tragedies take place there’s a lot of attention and then it dies off. It’s like, why do we only talk about this when stuff happens? Why can’t we be a little more proactive on some of these things to make sure we’re moving forward and looking to the future versus being reactionary all the time?
That’s what I was most encouraged by in D.C. is the fact that they’re trying to move not only with the gun stuff, but also with mental health support.
Clarification: The Broward County Public Schools’s online directory identified Ty Thompson as its assistant director of athletics and student activities last month while the former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School principal told The 74 he was also involved in some IT activities for the district. A district spokeswoman in a July 12 email said Thompson retains his principal title and is now assigned to the IT division. The clarification came after The Sun Sentinel published an investigation into Thompson’s role with the district.
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