In February 2018, a 13-year-old student shot and killed himself in the bathroom of a middle school in Massillon, Ohio. When police checked the student’s cell phone, they found notes that indicated he had planned a mass shooting at the school.
It was the latest in a disturbing spate of incidents that rocked the local community and put law enforcement on edge. Between August 2017 and March 2018, 12 teenagers in the broader area killed themselves. That’s a suicide rate more than seven times the national average for 10 to 19-year-olds, and more than 11 times the number of child and teen suicides the area had in past years.
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The incidents prompted officials of the 6,000-student district to take a hard look at the way their schools operated, and to find ways to better monitor both student mental health and possible outside threats. They brought in David Morgan, a former special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to oversee that effort.
Morgan knows the Jackson Local School District well. He had three kids in its schools, and for years he had thought about security each time he visited one of its campuses. So when Morgan turned 50 and became eligible for retirement from the FBI, he saw another way to use his training to make his community safer. “I knew that there were things that schools could do to protect themselves and identify at-risk students sooner, and I wanted to be a part of that,” he said.
He finds the job overwhelming at times — at least as challenging as his 22-year-long career in the FBI, where he investigated, among other things, criminal enterprises and international terrorism.
Morgan is tasked with keeping the district’s students safe as well as implementing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which spent two weeks in April 2018 surveying students to understand what was behind the string of suicides. Following the survey, health officials recommended that the school develop mental health and suicide prevention support for the students. They also recommended teaching families about the importance of keeping guns away from children in crisis. About one in four students surveyed said they had access to a gun, which is about double the national average. Roughly 14 percent of students who had survived past suicide attempts also said they could access a firearm.
When health officials issued their final report on the suicide cluster, they suggested that counseling and education about safe gun storage should be part of the community’s recovery plan. Morgan has done this by having school counselors and administrators reach out to families when students are struggling, and asking them to consider locking up any guns, or temporarily removing them from their home until the crisis passes.
“If parents maintain control of their weapons, that would be one threat that we wouldn’t have to worry about, because it’s so hard for a kid to go out and get a gun on his own,” he said.
But restricting access to weapons is only one part of the equation. When Morgan began as head of risk management last year, he said he deluded himself into thinking that he could identify clear warning signs among students who were likely to harm themselves or others. “I thought, ‘I’m gonna come up with some way of looking at falling grades or isolation or whatever, and that’s gonna tell me this is a person to look at,’” he said.
Now that he’s been doing this job for most of a year, he knows that each situation must be evaluated case by case, by trained adults who know the specific child at risk. That means Morgan needs to encourage students, teachers, and staff to recognize their own feelings, and to listen to one another.
Today, Morgan’s responsibilities are vast: He advises teachers and staff when they are concerned about individual students, looks for places where the school buildings might be vulnerable to intruders, and organizes drills and security training.
Working a Suicide Hotline When the Caller Says ‘Gun’
At its heart, Morgan said, much of the work comes down to communicating and building relationships — and those are skills he developed in the FBI. Trust, he said, has always been key to his career, and after a few minutes of speaking to him it’s easy to see why. He’s unguarded and talkative, with an informal demeanor that belies his steely credentials. “The number one thing an agent does is talk to people. Whether it’s a subject or an attorney or the head of a corporation, you have to understand their perspective,” he said. “And that’s what is helping me in this environment. Not only talking to at-risk students, but talking to administrators and making sure I see things from their perspective.”
In addition to counseling families with at-risk children about storing their guns safely, the report released after the CDC survey suggested that local schools work to build connections between members of the school community.
The district created a class for high school students designed to teach them to identify and manage their emotions, and to give teachers a chance to spot students who might be in trouble. If a teacher becomes concerned about a student, they will convene a team of teachers, counselors, and administrators to meet regularly and look for solutions to the child’s challenges.
Morgan tries to encourage school staff to speak to him about family relationships that might lead to violence. As much as everyone worries about school shootings, he said, domestic violence incidents are much more common, and also put the school community at serious risk.
Morgan also oversees the district’s use of an anonymous reporting system run by Sandy Hook Promise, a gun violence prevention group, which enables students to report worrisome behavior by phone, app, or website. The counselors who respond collect information about whether the at-risk person has access to a gun, or other dangerous items. After they share the information with Morgan, he decides if the student’s parents, school counselor, or principal should be notified, and whether a police officer should go to the student’s home to check on them. Morgan said that he can think of five times since he started that a report to the tip line helped identify a student in real danger of taking their own life.
“Typically, as soon as the parents are involved, things deescalate,” Morgan said. “It puts them on notice that, hey, you really need to pay attention to what’s going on with your student. Make sure there are no weapons or medications, and they’re not alone. Because they’re going through a hard time.”
Morgan works with school resource officers — local police officers assigned to each school — to blend into the community so students and teachers will think of them as pals and confidants. At the same time, they need to be ready to respond to an armed intruder at a moment’s notice. They now undergo training using a simulation in which officers are shown realistic events on a movie screen. Armed with laser guns, they can test their judgement and skills under pressure. “It’s the same strategy that coaches use,” Morgan said. “You play the game beforehand because you don’t have time to think about it when it actually happens.”
All the schools in the district regularly hold lockdown drills, as required by the state of Ohio, but they do not do realistic active shooter scenarios like some districts do. Rather, they practice what they should do if there is a dangerous person outside (get away from the windows) versus what to do if there is a dangerous person inside (go into classrooms and lock the doors.) They also practice how to respond to non-human threats like gas leaks and fires, Morgan said.
Many days, Morgan can feel his work paying off. The suicide problem hasn’t been eliminated, but it has improved. Last year, there was only one teen suicide in the area. Recently, a student whose teachers had been concerned about him confided to a counselor that he had, at one time, contemplated a violent attack on his school. The counselor spoke to the student’s parents, and encouraged them to secure their guns. They asked a relative to store them, at least for a while.