Between 2010 and January 2017, multiple authorities in Florida’s Broward and Palm Beach counties received numerous reports of violence and erratic behavior involving one particular young man. A few of the accounts, as reported in various media outlets, included:
- Deputies called to the subject’s home 40 times. The frantic calls involve acts of “juvenile disturbance, domestic disturbance, and child/elder abuse.” (No arrests made)
- Belligerent teen is expelled for bringing weapons to school, but no arrest is made.
- In 2016 the sheriff’s office is informed that the emotionally unstable young man plans to shoot up his high school. Sheriffs determine the subject has knives and a BB gun and send the information to the school resources officer. (No apparent follow through taken by law enforcement)
- A fight involving the young man triggers a referral to Florida Social Services. An official investigation determines the subject’s “final level of risk is low,” even though he has exhibited frequent behavior outbursts and states he is planning to buy a gun. The investigation is closed in Nov. 2016 just months before he buys an AR-15 assault-style rifle.
- An alleged student assault in January 2017 elicits a school-based threat from the teen. An assessment is made, but there is no police involvement.
- The subject takes pictures cutting himself and posts on social media.
- A 911 call in 2017 informs dispatchers that the subject threatened his brother with a shotgun. Deputies are called to the home three times in November. There is no apparent follow up.
FBI gets a call from a person close to the subject who voices concerns about “his gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing media posts, as well as his potential to conduct a school shooting.” (FBI does not act on the call.)
Over a seven-year period these and other threatening incidents fail to alert school officials, law enforcement, social services, and the FBI to a potential deadly outburst, and on February 14, 2018, the “troubled young man” picks up his AR-15 rifle, goes to his former high school, and begins a shooting rampage that kills 14 students and 3 adults, and wounds countless others.
Can we prevent a scenario like this from happening here in the Santa Clarita Valley?
That question was posed at a recent community meeting featuring guest speaker Larry Schallert, assistant director of the Student Health & Wellness/Mental Health Program at College of the Canyons. Schallert, who had been outlining the various student crisis response protocols at COC, responded that it was difficult to make generalizations when dealing with any threatening behaviors, whether to one’s self or to others, but it is vital to facilitate and maintain open lines of communication between all the community’s pertinent crisis agencies.
Schallert went on to explain that an organization was created six years ago to bring our valley’s law enforcement members, mental health providers, school officials, and residents together on a monthly basis to review current mental health issues and brainstorm possible ways of responding to various crises. The SCV Committee on Suicide Prevention, Postvention, and Wellness Committee acts on the precept that awareness is the first step in preventative action – and it must be funneled into information sharing, pooled resources, and group training.
Likewise, an informed citizenry is invaluable in spotting dangerous behaviors. That goes beyond the familiar motto of “See Something, Say Something, Do Something.” Schallert challenged his audience to alter the way they view mental illness.
“We are trying to take the stigma away from the words ‘mental illness’ and ‘counseling’ so families with problems don’t shy away from seeking the treatment they need,” Schallert said. “We want people to understand how important ‘language’ is to determining negative perceptions. Most of all, we want to emphasize that people can recover from mental illness. Depression and its related manifestations can strike anyone, any time, but their impact depends on the level of degree and the number of coping mechanisms available to the individual. We hope this understanding will encourage family members and friends to become more proactive and seek professional help when dealing with a troubled person.”
As a licensed clinical social worker, Schallert has more than 30 years of experience working with community mental health agencies, public schools, and educational advocacy. His position at College of the Canyons provides him access to many of the community organizations dealing with the study and treatment of dysfunctional behaviors. That includes membership in committees like the SCV Ad Hoc Committee on Human Trafficking, the COC Behavioral Intervention Team, and the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Transition Aged Youth Issues.
Larry believes that the social service resources in our community and the cooperation being developed between agencies help to give valuable insight into the assessment of erratic behaviors sparked by mental illness. Out of this valley-wide collaboration has come a list of warning signs in determining a risk for suicidal or harmful behaviors. The list includes:
- talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself
- looking for a way to kill oneself, such as searching online or buying a gun
- talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
- increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
- showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- displaying extreme mood swings
If an individual’s conduct is clearly and immediately reckless, disorderly, dangerous, or threatening (including self-harm behavior), the recommended response is to call 911; if the person shows signs of distress, but it is unclear how serious it is, there are a number of resources to contact including the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK, Santa Clarita Helpline, 661-259-HELP, Santa Clarita Valley Mental Health, 661-288-4800, and the SCV Child and Family Center, 259-9439.
There may be no simple solution to preventing a tragedy like the one that occurred in Florida, but it was clear from Schallert’s talk that there are professionals and community leaders in the Santa Clarita Valley who are taking proactive steps in recognizing possible threats and working diligently to develop positive ways of responding to the dangers.