Sunday, April 19, 2009

Choosing Silence

Lucinda Roy has a new book out No Right to Remain Silent: The Tragedy at Virginia Tech. I remember her well. 
My son graduated with an English degree from Tech in 2006, the year before the tragedy. Roy was serving as the department chair and was a spirited, entertaining, and witty speaker. I liked her right off, recognizing a humanitarian who clearly loves young people.
Her part in the tragedy was to have tutored the shooter, and to urge everyone she could find - and him- to get help, because he was clearly in a frightening psychological place.
Having failed at that -- marshaling other adults and professionals to rally around a young man in trouble -- her reward is to have her nights haunted by sleeplessness and the guilt associated with not being able to ward off a tragedy.
It could have - could - happen to any educator.
I have a pin my sister gave me, which, tongue in cheek, reads: "I'm a teacher. I know what you're thinking."
But, if you read the writings of students like Roy has done, that can be true.  And occasionally it is clear that a student is struggling with mental illness.  In the K-12 world resources are extended to the classroom teacher to help these students, and their families if necessary, and it can be as easy as filling out a form or picking up the phone. But because you cannot prove a negative, we don't really know how many tragedies have been avoided.  We only know when things go horribly wrong.
But when things are working -- and nothing bad is happening -- its really hard to argue for some of these costly positions.
One student from my past had the kind of selective  mutism Roy describes in the Tech shooter. Very early in the year the school psychologist was brought in to work with my student and the family.  Tragedy avoided?  We don't really know.
I do know this.  The next year our school psychologist position was cut.  My immediate concern was the end or reduction of resources for this situation.
A school should be a hub of resources making life better for all the students - social work, psychological resources, dentists, clothing closets, meals, you name it.  By law, we know where those students are at least part of the day.  That is the time to make intercessions.  When students reach the age of majority, we have less opportunity to interfere in mental and physical health.  That choice is left largely to the discretion of the patient - a patient who may be in no position to make a rational decision.
The irony is that when nothing is happening, things are working.  It just isn't always easy for those outside the school to see what it is that isn't happening.  
But if you drive by a quiet, orderly school each day, where nothing ever happens, we thank you for your support.