EMILY KWONG, HOST:
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KWONG: ...From NPR. Hey, SHORT WAVE-rs. Emily Kwong here. The school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, has once again left people agonizing over the question, how do we prevent this? And we're here to tell you that schools across the country have been trying to figure that out. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR's mental health correspondent, has looked into this and she's here to share some of her reporting. Hi, Rhitu.
RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Hi, Emily.
KWONG: Hi. So tell us about what you've learned.
CHATTERJEE: Yeah. So the approach that's known to have the most success is based on a method that was developed by the U.S. Secret Service, and a lot of schools have in fact adopted it. And the idea is that school staff work closely with law enforcement, families, mental health professionals to identify kids who are at risk of doing something violent before they hurt anyone, and then steer them off of that path of violence.
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KWONG: Today on the show, how one school district in Oregon has been turning troubled youth away from violence for nearly two decades. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.
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KWONG: All right, Rhitu, let's walk through this method that's starting to be implemented in schools. What are its key components?
CHATTERJEE: So, yes, the U.S. Secret Service came up with this approach in order to prevent acts of mass violence. And they call it threat assessment or behavioral threat assessment. And it involves various groups working together to identify a potential threatening individual before they act. Because in the vast majority of instances, Emily, these individuals will talk to somebody about their plans, either in person or, especially when it comes to youth, on social media and law enforcement calls these leakages of the plans. So if we're talking about potentially violent teens, the success of this approach depends on someone speaking up.
KWONG: Like a friend or a family member?
CHATTERJEE: Yeah, anyone who has heard about the leaked plans, it depends on them speaking up, telling school authorities or the police, and then the authorities can look into the individual. And soon after the authorities are involved, usually mental health professionals get looped in because they play an important part in this, too.
KWONG: Yeah. Let's talk about the role of mental health professionals here, because every time there is a mass shooting, there's always a conversation about mental health. And the science is clear that it's easy access to guns that's the main cause of mass shootings, right?
CHATTERJEE: Absolutely. Absolutely. Easy access to guns is one of the biggest risk factors for mass shootings. And it's also true that, you know, mental illness does not cause somebody to become violent. Mental illness does not predict who will become a mass shooter or a school shooter. In fact, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than those without mental illness. But, Emily, if you talk to folks at the FBI or the Secret Service or, you know, psychologists who've studied school shootings, they say that mental health problems are clearly in the mix. They are one of the main risk factors, and there are many risk factors. They can make it difficult for individuals to deal with other stressors in their lives. And it's clear that the vast majority of school shooters have had many stressors, also a lot of childhood traumas, and they've been struggling alone without social support for a while.
And this is why mental health professionals are important for the prevention work. They are the ones who eventually talk to anyone who has been flagged as a potential threat to figure out what's driving the person's aggression or violence and what kind of help they'll need to be steered off that path of violence. And in fact, the key architect of the threat assessment model by the Salem-Keizer School District in Oregon, is a psychologist. His name is John Van Dreal, and he's been doing violence prevention work at the school district for over 20 years. And he's the main person who help turn things around for many youth, including a man named Mishka. By the way, we're not using Mishka's full name to protect his privacy.
KWONG: We're going to take a moment to listen to Rhitu's story about what happened to Mishka.
CHATTERJEE: Back in 2011, psychologist John Van Dreal got a phone call from Oregon's North Salem High School. It was an assistant principal telling him that a student had written an angry, violent Facebook post.
JOHN VAN DREAL: There were a number of statements about hitting people with pipes, breaking knees, bashing heads with pipes, looking for help in doing so.
CHATTERJEE: And then there was this.
VAN DREAL: (Expletive) North Salem High School, seriously. It's asking for a (expletive) shooting or something.
CHATTERJEE: Van Dreal's job is to keep schools safe. He directs the Safety and Risk Management Program for Salem-Keizer Public Schools. He says he knew of this kid.
VAN DREAL: Mishka was a - was known to be pretty aggressive and combative. There was enough history here to suggest that, if we didn't intervene very quickly, that we would have a pretty bad situation on our hands at North High.
CHATTERJEE: By the time Van Dreal arrived at the school that day, police officers had already pulled Mishka out of class...
MISHKA: In handcuffs.
CHATTERJEE: ...Surrounded by police.
MISHKA: I got searched several times.
CHATTERJEE: And they asked the 17-year-old lots of questions.
MISHKA: The police would start asking me questions like, hey, so what's going on? What's happening? They asked me, like, was I actually intending to do something? And it's like, nope, just blowing off steam.
CHATTERJEE: Mishka was angry - really angry. That's because he says two of his friends had been jumped by some jocks.
MISHKA: My buddies got beat up. Quite literally, they got beat up. My buddies got suspended for that.
CHATTERJEE: He thought this was unfair. He says his friends didn't start the fight. And in his Facebook post, he was trying to avenge them. Van Dreal knew that to calm Mishka down, he had to see the world through his eyes.
VAN DREAL: He's the one justifying the violence, and I have to get behind that and see why.
CHATTERJEE: He learned that Mishka's struggle started way back in middle school. One day, Mishka says, a kid tried to pick a fight.
MISHKA: As I was turning around and saying, dude, I don't want to fight, he takes a swing and hits me directly in my eye where everything just went black for a moment, like, and I got mad, and it turned into a physical fight. That was probably the first time I actually punched a person.
CHATTERJEE: His right eye was severely damaged. He says, the next two years he was in and out of surgery.
MISHKA: I started failing majority of my classes. I wasn't able to follow along. I was - I literally had to stand up, like, a foot away from the - what's on the board 'cause everything was just a haze. Like, I couldn't see anything.
CHATTERJEE: Eventually, he says, he lost all sight in that eye. And the attacks on him - they continued. In seventh grade, Mishka says, a group of boys jumped him. He says he told the school which students did it, and they were suspended.
MISHKA: But when they came back, they got even more of their buddies, and, on the way home, I literally just got bluntly attacked and just - I was literally just laying there in the dirt, in the mud, and I was getting kicked like I was a soccer ball.
CHATTERJEE: He says he ended up with an abdominal injury and more surgery.
MISHKA: That is actually, like, the point where I was, like, I'm done with everything and everyone, and I'm like, none of you could protect me, so I don't care about what you guys say, I don't care about your rules, whether you're wearing a police uniform, military, or whether you're the president or God himself. And that's where I became, like, a loose cannon.
CHATTERJEE: Mishka spent his high school years getting in one fight after another.
VAN DREAL: He saw himself as a victim who was going to pay some people back so that this injustice didn't continue. And that's that righteous indignation that can drive these kinds of assaults.
CHATTERJEE: Then came senior year and that Facebook post.
VAN DREAL: [Expletive] North Salem High School. Seriously.
CHATTERJEE: It sounded like a serious threat, but Van Dreal and his team realized that Mishka had no intentions of shooting anyone. Still, he was angry and volatile. Van Dreal listened to Mishka when he explained why.
VAN DREAL: Teachers weren't reaching out to kids who needed the help. There weren't the connections. There was the pecking order and the injustice.
CHATTERJEE: They decided to give Mishka another chance and moved him to a smaller school, Roberts High, where teachers gave him the attention and help he wanted and where he found his first real mentor, Stanley Roberts, a behavioral analyst at the school. Roberts says he remembers Mishka in those early days.
STANLEY ROBERTS: A kid shy and hiding - didn't say much. He just walked through the hall with his head down, didn't want to be noticed, maybe hurting. And I was like, well, hey, let's talk.
CHATTERJEE: Roberts invited him to stop by his office any time, and Mishka did. At first, he was hesitant.
ROBERTS: Started out a young boy, a young man trying to prove himself. And I think it was just more of a, you know, where do I fit in? Always having to fight and just being angry at - you know, at the world. It's not fair. And I just listened.
CHATTERJEE: Then, after a while, Roberts started pushing back. Did Mishka want to be that guy who's angry and fighting all the time?
ROBERTS: Is this what you want? No. Well, what do you want? Well, I can't just walk away from it. I'm like, but as you get older, you can. You don't have to stay in that.
CHATTERJEE: Roberts helped Mishka find other ways to solve his problems. It was like having his own personal coach.
MISHKA: Somebody to be there for - like, if I do need to determine, like, hey, what do I do now, knowing that there is going to be somebody there, saying, hey, this is what you do now.
CHATTERJEE: Mishka graduated from high school on time. Today, he has a full-time job and enjoys baking when he isn't working. He's far from the angry kid he used to be. John Van Dreal has worked with over 1,000 at-risk kids, collaborating with families, police, schools, mental health professionals. He says this is how you move kids away from violence - through safe environments, connections, role models.
VAN DREAL: Moving kids from despair to hope - that's the bumper sticker for what we do.
CHATTERJEE: Is that all it takes? It sounds, like, almost too simplistic to be true.
VAN DREAL: Well, it is not. It really works.
KWONG: Wow. Rhitu, that's some amazing reporting.
CHATTERJEE: Thank you. Yeah, it's - it was eye-opening for me too.
KWONG: Well, part of why it's so eye-opening is actually just hearing from Mishka, a person who has clearly changed so much through this program.
KWONG: Do we know how many kids, former students like Mishka, are out there?
CHATTERJEE: No. It's hard to get a number, but it's very clear that there are many, many, many such kids because, you know, John Van Dreal himself has trained more than 600 school districts across the country. And he says states all the way from Washington to Oklahoma are using his model.
KWONG: Wow. That's a vast reach. Yeah.
CHATTERJEE: And - yeah, yeah. Even back until 2017, at least half of secondary schools and 40% of primary schools were using some sort of a threat assessment team.
KWONG: And what's tough in talking about this is, of course, because this is prevention work, you can't always know what it is you're preventing.
CHATTERJEE: That's a very, very good question.
KWONG: Is that ever a challenge for you?
CHATTERJEE: Absolutely. It's hard to measure because, you know, depending on what stage you're catching people, it's hard to know, like, which one would have led to a school shooting that was stopped. And, like, if something bad doesn't happen, we don't hear about it.
CHATTERJEE: But a lot of...
KWONG: That's kind of the great flaw in our industry in a lot of ways.
CHATTERJEE: That's right. But this work is clearly going on. And we also know that, after the Parkland school shooting in 2018, Congress gave more money to schools to use similar models to prevent school shootings. But it's clear from the shooting in Uvalde that we're not preventing every single case.
KWONG: Yeah, absolutely. Rhitu, having done this reporting, how do you look at school shootings now?
CHATTERJEE: I - you know, in many ways, I look at them as society's failure to protect youth, the perpetrator as well as the victims.
CHATTERJEE: And when they happen, it's a collective failure of a lot of groups of people around children.
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KWONG: Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR mental health correspondent, thank you so much for coming on SHORT WAVE.
CHATTERJEE: Thank you, Emily.
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KWONG: This episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez. It was edited by Gabriel Spitzer and fact-checked by Rachel Carlson. Gisele Grayson is our senior supervising editor. Andrea Kissack is the head of the science desk. Edith Chapin is vice president and executive editor at large. Terence Samuel is vice president and executive editor. And Nancy Barnes is our senior vice president of news. I'm Emily Kwong. Thank you so much for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.
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