Recognizing signs could help curb school violence, experts say - WTRF 7 News Sports Weather - Wheeling Steubenville

Recognizing signs could help curb school violence, experts say

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Normally, when a child shows any sign of physical illness, be it a stomach ache, a scratchy throat or runny nose, parents think nothing of taking that child to a doctor.

But when a child exhibits signs of mental instability, parents often find themselves in denial and don't seek treatment as quickly as they should.

That was one way psychologist George Damous described the way people react to mental illness. But rather than burying their heads in the sand, parents who see any sign of extreme anger or potential mental instability need to get their children into treatment. And the sooner, the better.

"The point is that it's the same thing," Damous said. "It's a problem, an illness going on in your child and we have to head it off as early as possible. They're doing their child a favor by going to one of these professionals."

Damous spoke Feb. 6 in Charleston as part of A Summit on West Virginia Safe Schools, sponsored by the U.S. Attorney's Office. He and other experts said getting appropriate treatment for children could lead to a decrease in school violence. Damous pointed out most instances of mental illness in a child starts off slowly. Perhaps the child will make fun of a classmate or hit someone out of anger. If not caught early, the violence may progress into animal cruelty or threatening others with a weapon—perhaps a stick or a pencil.

"We usually see a history, a pattern, of these behaviors," he said.

Signs of a mental illness shouldn't be confused with bullying, however. In today's schools, bullying isn't ignored or dismissed as it was in generations past. Rather, schools are quick to address situations between classmates in an effort to improve school climate, said Don Chapman with the West Virginia Department of Education's Office of Healthy Schools.

"Things have turned a corner in bullying," he said.

The turning tide is partly because teachers, counselors, school administrators and prevention resource officers are now working to connect with students. Chris Schimmel, a former school guidance counselor and current professor in West Virginia University's College of Education and Human Services, said researchers at WVU are looking into how violence in schools has been averted. A big part of that, Schimmel said, is connectivity.

Schimmel offered several examples of what researchers have discovered. At one high school in Harrison County, teachers wrote the name of each student on an index card. Teachers then were given stickers and if the teacher knew something personal about a student – where they worked after school, something about their family, their goals for after high school — the teacher placed a sticker on that student's card. This was an exercise to show teachers how some students may fall through the cracks.

"At the end of that activity, there were still a significant number of names without dots," Schimmel said. "Those are the students I'm worried about."

As a result of the exercise, the school began a silent mentoring program where teachers could connect with those students and learn more about them personally and connect them to the school environment.

And that kind of connectivity could have averted an incident in Wood County. Deputy Scott Jefferson with the Wood County Sheriff's Department is a prevention resource officer at Williamstown High School. He said one student alerted him to a potential threat she discovered during a Facebook chat with a male classmate. Using that information, Jefferson was able to alert law enforcement who took the male student into custody and school went on as normal.

"This was all from the efforts of the young lady who contacted me," Jefferson said. "She felt comfortable to contact me."

Schimmel said she wants to see all students feel that kind of connectivity to their prevention resource office, teacher, counselor or administrator.

But despite the schools' best efforts, sometimes students do fall through the cracks. That's partly because of the stigma associated with mental illnesses, explained Jackie Payne, director of the Department of Health and Human Resource's Division of Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health, Bureau for Behavioral Health and Health Facilities.

"It's a huge issue," she said.

"I think we have to continue to educate and do mental health promotion," she added. "One of the first things we have to do is be careful of the language we use. If we in the field aren't using people-first language and recognizing that an individual is not defined by his or her disability … I don't want to be identified as a schizophrenic. I'm an individual with schizophrenia. Those simple things can make a huge difference in stigma. Mental health is a positive term just like physical health is a positive term."

Payne said her department is working to increase the services offered to mental health patients in the 16-25 age range. That population is a higher risk, she said, because they don't always transition from adolescence into adulthood seamlessly.

"Often our kids transitioning into adulthood aren't quite equipped … to successfully live on their own," she said.

"It is a high-risk population. It's a population ending up in our correctional facilities, state facilities or homeless," she added.