By Richard L. Gaw
Originally appeared 03/20/2018 01:22PM in Chester County Press, www.chestercounty.com
On February 14, a mass shooting occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that resulted in the deaths of 17 people and the wounding of 17 others.
It became one of the world’s deadliest school massacres on record, and just the latest in a continuum of school tragedies that have burned names like Sandy Hook and Columbine into the consciousness of America.
As she watched the events unfold on television and social media over the next few days, Winden Rowe, M.S., a Kennett Square resident, therapist and the mother of two teenage sons who are students in the Kennett Consolidated School District, feared that the Florida shooting, on the heels of countless other tragedies just like it, had become just the latest stopping off point for a once seething rage against violence that was tapering off on its way to full acceptance.
She wrote a letter to KCSD Superintendent Dr. Barry Tomasetti that detailed her rage against complacency, both in the community and what she perceived was also true in the school district itself.
In short, Rowe wanted to work with the school district on finding ways to address the causes of school shootings, not just reactive protocols. “Silence in anything is cosignatory, and irresponsible in this matter,” she wrote.
The letter, which was later published in the Chester County Press, invited Tomasetti and district officials to explore the possibility of opening up a dialogue in an effort to “break the silence and demonstrate to our children that we are not willing to go on another day acting as if this is not a national crisis,” she wrote. “Please come to the table. Please offer more than a ‘We understand your concern.’”
She received it.
On Feb. 27, accompanied by her friend Colleen Kauffman, a mother of five who currently has four children in the school district, Rowe met with Tomasetti and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Michael Barber to further a dialogue that in many ways, the school district has already begun to have with the population it serves.
During the meeting, Rowe and Kauffman asked the Kennett school district to create district-wide efforts that recognize potential warning signs in students whose actions may be triggered by stress and trauma, which could subsequently lead to negative health outcomes, mental health concerns and violence. Rowe encouraged the Kennett school district to adopt the Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACE) questionnaire, a 10-item self-report to identify childhood experiences of abuse and neglect. The study, conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, proposes that childhood trauma and stress early in life, apart from potentially impairing social, emotional and cognitive development, indicates a higher risk of developing health and behavioral issues later in life.
Among the ten questions on the questionnaire are:
Prior to your 18th birthday:
“One of the things that came up in dialogue was that there are two branches of discussion regarding school violence – regulations related to security and safety, and approaches to mental health,” Rowe said. “The overarching one for me, given my training, is wellness, and wellness gets overlooked but is the primary and most important aspect of prevention and building resilience in communities, so that we don’t see these incidents happen again.”
In the case of Nikolas Jacob Cruz, the 19-year-old convicted of the Florida shooting spree, “he faced a lot of adversity in his home environment that wasn’t being addressed,” Rowe said to a group of residents she met with on March 14 at Anchor Fitness in Kennett Square. “What we know about him is that he faced a lot of adversity in his childhood development. What we know about children with higher ACE scores are that they are far more likely to have poorer health outcomes caused by stress, and a higher likelihood of being incarcerated and involvement with the law.
“This is not a report card that means that something is wrong. It means that things have happened, and if you’re addressing the outcomes, this is where you go in order to treat the root causes. This is where the plumbing issue exists, but rather, we go clean up the spill.”
Since it was first introduced in the 1990s, the ACE questionnaire has helped lay the foundation for growing recognition of the prevalence and impact of childhood adversity, stress and trauma on children and youth. Rowe said that the ACE questionnaire is being incorporated into cities and towns, who in turn infuse it within schools and law enforcement systems.
Rowe said that living in a stress-filled environment contributes to a life imbalance, which makes it more difficult for the individual to access “executive function,” a self-regulation system that allows an individual to plan, focus attention, remember instructions and juggle multiple tasks successfully.
Using the analogy of seeing a bear in the forest, Rowe said that the first reaction is to run, “but what if you’re the kid in the home, and the bear comes home every night?” she said. “What if you have to go home to the bear every night? What if school is the bear, and you’re an under-functioning student who’s not quite cut out for the system?”
While the Kennett school district does not administer an ACE questionnaire to students, there are several measures in place that provide each student with social, academic and personal lifelines. The Student Assistance Program (SAP) at Kennett Middle School and the Kennett Intervention Program (KIT) at Kennett High School provide additional resources for students and their parents who are in need of support, and is staffed by trained social workers, counselors, teachers, administrators and nurses.
In addition, teachers in the district are trained in suicide prevention, opioid training and mandated reporting which, in accordance with Pa. Act 126 (2013), requires that all school and independent contractors of school entities provide child abuse recognition and reporting training to all employees, including contracted substitute teachers who have direct contact with children.
Several years ago, Dr. Terri Erbacher, an author, school psychologist for 15 years and professor of psychology at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, met with school staff in order to provide the district with a screening instrument that counselors and social workers can use to asses students at risk.
“Based on the results of the risk screening, we move forward with with a recommendation for parents,” Barber said. “It is our own tool that was vetted through professionals in the field.”
“The ultimate outcome is that we find out more about the students and what may be the cause for what’s happening,” Tomasetti said. “They yield the same outcome [as the ACE questionnaire], even though they are not necessarily the same instrument.”
‘Minding Your Mind’
The Kennett school district is about to take another step to address mental health in its schools. On April 17 at the Kennett High School auditorium, beginning at 6:45 p.m., the district will welcome a presentation by Minding Your Mind, an organization that provides mental health education to adolescents, teens and young adults, their parents, teachers and school administrators, and the community, in order to reduce the stigma and destructive behaviors often associated with mental health issues. Minding Your Mind student presentations help students learn to recognize the warning signs of mental illness in themselves and their friends, and teach students that mental health issues and illnesses are common and treatable.
“Some of our constituents might think that mental health really isn’t a school district’s responsibility, but our staff’s point is, ‘We know it is,’” Tomasetti said. “We wish it wasn’t, but we know that there are kids who come to us who have difficulties.
“Everyone can sit around and ask who’s job is it to do this, but we’re going to do whatever we can in working with parents to give our kids the best education possible,” Tomasetti added. “We want them to be high achievers, but we also want them to be good citizens. A lot of times, because we have a lot of students in our school district, they tell us things. They tell their teachers things, they tell their counselors things that maybe they don’t tell other people. We look at this as a collaborative effort. We’ve got to help where we can help.”
Barber referred to the meeting he and Tomasetti had with Rowe and Kauffman as “a continued discussion on school safety, and what we can do to best support our students and parents, from a mental health perspective – continuing the conversation about what’s being done and what we can continue to do to best support our community.”
Rowe and Kauffman said that they plan to extend the conversation beyond the KCSD and into the community. They are currently in discussions with Kennett Flash General Manager Andrew Miller to begin hosting TED Talk-like seminars at the venue.
“Our kids, born after a certain date on the calendar, think that [school shootings] are a part of the normal world,” Rowe said. “For those of us who didn’t grow up this way, we’re watching these school shootings and thinking, ‘This is totally insane.’ Our goal with the district is not to ask about safety issues. We know that they’re handling that. We don’t want to talk about guns in schools, or have debates about mental health. Our goal is to talk about how can we infuse wellness into this school district.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.