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By Leah Todd, The Seattle Times

On the day that a 15-year-old boy at Marysville-Pilchuck High School near Seattle shot five friends before turning the gun on himself, Marysville School Superintendent Becky Berg was in Olympia, Wash., discussing a grant that would boost mental-health services in her district.

The $10 million award, which Marysville will share with two other school districts, is part of a federal initiative spurred by the massacre of 20 first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 and several other high-profile shootings involving emotionally disturbed young men.

In light of the tragedy that unfolded Oct. 24 in Marysville, state leaders say they will speed up efforts to put the money to use, hopefully placing mental-health professionals in the district’s schools as early as next spring, and training teachers in mental-health first aid.

Planning will start even sooner.

“We’ll be up there soon,” said Dixie Grunenfelder, prevention and intervention program supervisor for the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

While it’s not clear what motivated Jaylen Fryberg to open fire on his classmates, killing three and wounding two others, or whether mental-health services could have helped him, many believe schools would benefit from having more trained staff on campus.

“Folks don’t just need mental-health services when they turn 18,” said Berg.”They need those all their lives.”

The state’s application for the federal grant paints Marysville as a community that’s close to the state norm for mental-health issues. About as many teenagers experience suicidal thoughts in Snohomish County, where Marysville-Pilchuck High School is located, as anywhere else in the state.

Roughly one in 15 high-school students there_the same percentage as in other counties statewide_reported carrying a weapon to school in the past 30 days. Bullying also happens at about the same rate as elsewhere.

The state says it chose Marysville and the other two school districts for the federal grant as much for their ability to implement mental-health services as their needs.

“We knew there was a commitment there from the district as well as community side to say, ‘We’re really ready to take on some of these issues,'” Grunenfelder said of Marysville.

Berg said she hopes the grant will help her schools address mental-health needs early.

The money, which will arrive as an extra $1.95 million per year across the three districts for the next five years, is part of Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education).

Whether any mental-health workers will be assigned to Marysville-Pilchuck High School has not been decided.

The first step is a required needs assessment in the Marysville community, Grunenfelder said.

At present, Marysville School District doesn’t have any specific training for teachers or other staff on juvenile mental health, said Berg. Teachers talk generally about child psychology and mandatory reporting of child abuse, she said, but not mental-health issues specifically.

Jerry Jenkins, superintendent of the Northwest Educational Service District, which supports Marysville and about 30 other districts, says school counselors and psychologists usually know the signs of mental-health problems, but not enough teachers and other school staff do, even though they often are in a better position to notice them. It’s not just a problem in Marysville, he said.

Another challenge is making sure people who need help know where help is available, said Joe Valentine, executive director of the North Sound Mental Health Administration, which oversees the public mental-health services in five North Sound counties, including Snohomish. Valentine’s group has held town-hall meetings on children’s mental health in the region, including Marysville.

In teenagers, signs of mental illness are sometimes hard to catch, Valentine said. And often, people come to Valentine’s group once the mental illness has become severe. Ideally, it should be caught much sooner, he said.

Teachers and families can keep an eye on changes in behavior, like eating and sleeping habits. And when someone talks about hurting themselves, he said, that should be taken seriously as a cry for help.

But sometimes, things happen that no one could have predicted, he said.

Could the services from the $10 million federal grant, if put in place sooner, prevented what happened in Marysville?

Jenkins, of the Northwest Educational Service District, said he can’t speculate.

“What I can say, [is] there would be community resources identified and training provided, so that if a parent or a student had a concern about somebody they would know where to go to access services,” he said.”Now, would that have made a difference? I don’t know.”

AFP Photo/David Ryder

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Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons, a novel and a memoir. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.

Ralph Reed

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