Training for Tragedy

Training for Tragedy

Critical challenges for school psychologists.

School psychologists are often the first professionals to reach students with mental illness, and part of their role is to help identify threats that can lead to events such as the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which left 20 children and six adults dead, including school psychologist Mary Sherlach, who was one of the first responders. But as district budgets are cut and school psychologists retire, their difficult and crucial role working with troubled students may be endangered.

It is increasingly part of the school psychologist’s job to deal with violence, according to Stephen Brock, a school psychology professor and program coordinator at California State University, Sacramento. And they have been more prepared than ever to deal with crises like that in Newtown. “Within the past decade or so, training standards have included an emphasis on preparing school psychologists to deal with a broad range of crisis events,” says Brock. “Back 20-plus years ago, it was a choice if a training program wanted to prepare its students to do these kind of things, but that’s no longer the case.” School psychologists are now trained for events including natural disasters, accidents, suicide, and aggressive violence, he adds.

This training also includes looking for risk factors and warning signs that students might be a danger to themselves or others, and is critical to the safety of the school. There are many cases in which a student would have done harm had a counselor not intervened, Brock says. “These are the stories that go unreported,” he notes. “One of the hallmarks of the job is confidentiality, and we’re unable to broadcast that we’ve been successful.” However, a national shortage of school psychologists and funding issues may prevent them from reaching students in need.

A National Shortage

The number of credentialed school psychologists nationwide dropped from roughly 38,000 in the 2004-2005 school year to 35,400 in 2008, according to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). Historically, most school psychologists have worked with students in special education. However, in the past decade, their role has expanded to include assessment and intervention to help identify student learning and behavioral needs, prevention (such as skill development, to promote healthy social, emotional, and behavioral development), and consultation services, including classroom management, counseling, violence prevention and crisis response. This expanded role became more critical given No Child Left Behind in 2002 and the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 2004, as both emphasize early intervention and accountability, according to a report from NASP.

Despite this, school psychologists have consistently had “considerable” or “some” shortage in recent years, according to data from the American Association for Employment in Education. More than half of school psychologists are expected to retire by 2015, and two out of three by 2020, according to a 2004 School Psychology Review study. “There are more students, and serious questions if we will be able to produce enough new school psychologists to meet demand, as a significant percentage are retiring,” says Brock. There are also not enough training programs nationally to meet demand, he adds.

And this reduction of school psychologists and resource officers consequently leads to the loss of trained eyes on troubled students, says Katherine S. Newman, sociologist and the James B. Knapp Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. NASP recommends a maximum student-to-school psychologist ratio of less than 1,000 to 1 in the general population, but the national average is 1,653 students per school psychologist, and similar shortages exist for school counselors and social workers, according to its website. “By raising the ratios of students to treatment professionals, we make it harder to spot people who are in trouble,” Newman says. “A lot of that trouble is something we need to worry about, and it can, in very rare instances, explode into the kind of violence we’ve seen.”

Identifying Threats

It’s difficult to assess students who may be a threat to a school, since “there is no valid profile of who these students are,” says Brock. “What school psychologists and administrators should be doing is looking for risk factors and warning signs.” School psychologists are trained to assess these warning signs and take action, often by contacting the principal and the student’s parents. If there is an imminent threat, the psychologist’s first action would be to alert the principal and call 911.

Sometimes, even addressing warning signs is not enough, and early problems worsen after a student leaves secondary school. Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old Newtown shooter who turned the gun on himself after the massacre, attended Newtown Public Schools and caught the attention of Newtown High School staff members at the beginning of his freshman year. He was assigned a school psychologist, and teachers, counselors, and security officers helped monitor him for fear that the quiet, socially awkward student might be bullied or try to hurt himself, a former school official told The Wall Street Journal in December. “We need a better way to assess the factors that are involved,” says Alan Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University, and director of the Yale Parenting Center. “That’s the main message here. The reason we make great gains in effective treatments is better diagnoses and assessments.” If a child displays several risk factors, “we might have an increased risk, but we don’t know who the child is who will [commit an act of violence] next,” he adds. “But we’re getting better at it.”

Keeping Up with Developments

School psychologists often have so much on their plate that it’s difficult to keep up with developments in the field, Kazdin says. Both school psychologists and administrators would benefit from routinely meeting with mental health workers with clinical experience, such as psychiatrists or clinical psychologists from community mental health organizations, who can share new research and better measures for diagnosis, and discuss if more can be done for specific student cases. Schools should also have more regular meetings about indicators of mental health issues, and if there are any students who should be examined more carefully.

Though school shootings are rare, school leaders would benefit from doing more for the millions of teenagers who are troubled, by providing mental health services or addressing issues students may face with their peers daily, says Newman of Johns Hopkins. “If we devoted more resources to psychological support, it wouldn’t be just in the name of trying to stop the tiny amount of people who become rampage shooters, but a bigger population that needs help,” Newman says. “It’s a good investment.”


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