Last Monday, students at David Douglas High School woke up to the news that one of their fellow students had died in a shooting in Portland over the weekend, and another was injured. The school quickly mobilized counselors to support students and staff and help them cope with their grief. Caty Buckley, a social worker at David Douglas High School, joins us to talk about her work supporting the mental health of students.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. One week ago today, students at David Douglas High School in Southeast Portland woke up to the news that one of their fellow students had been killed in a shooting the night before. Another had been injured. The school quickly mobilized counselors to support grieving students and staff. Caty Buckley is a member of that team. She’s a social worker at David Douglas High School, and she joins us now. Caty Buckley, thanks very much for joining us today.
Caty Buckley: Thank you, hi.
Miller: Hi. Can you walk us through the first things that happened when you got the call a week ago?
Buckley: Yeah. These calls typically go through our principal, and he mobilized our counseling department. Coincidentally, I was with a student. The team mobilized, and within about 45 minutes, by the time I was done meeting with my student, we were all ready to go to help support our students.
Miller: By the time district officials reach out to a school community or an official letter comes out from a principal, do most students already know what’s happened?
Buckley: Yes. Because of social media, our students actually were coming to staff first thing in the morning. And there is an obvious delay in that we need to confirm the information before we’re able to do anything. But because we had so many students coming to us, we started the process of finding supports and getting supports ready for our students. And then it was confirmed not much later.
Miller: It seems like social media really then affects the work you’re doing.
Buckley: Very much so, yes.
Miller: When you said you’re already with a student when you got the word from the principal, this was a student who actually came to you because that student had heard the news themselves?
Buckley: No, actually, it was a complete different situation, that they were having a hard time that morning and came into my office.
Miller: Just the regular aspects of your job.
Miller: What’s your overall goal in terms of the support you aim to provide after a violent tragedy like what happened last week?
Buckley: I think we really want to stabilize our student body and our staff, and make sure that they feel safe and secure being here and being together. That’s our primary goal. And then secondarily, we need to address the mental health needs that come up when kids experience grief, and especially of a peer. And then finally, the violence of this crime adds a different element to it as well.
Miller: Let’s take those one at a time. You said the first thing you want to do is to stabilize the community and students. How do you do that?
Buckley: We want to try to give fact based information. So part of that is going to be trying to check out rumors and stamp those out if they’re inaccurate. So getting accurate information out to staff and students as quickly as possible, and really trying to stay fact driven is the main goal.
And then I think letting people know that we’re here, that we’re thinking of them, we’re going to be there for them if they need it, we’re going to be accommodating if they need to take space from their class or to leave their class because of feelings coming up for them.
Miller: How common has that been, young people, students there in the high school actually taking time away or leaving classes, or taking advantage of the school provided supports that are available?
Buckley: There is kind of a pre-pandemic and post-pandemic in my view. I feel like since, coming back to school this year, kids have been amazing at saying I need support, and I need help. Now that being said, we know that there are tons of kids who are not reaching out, and those are the kids we worry about.
They are allowed to leave classrooms in these situations as necessary. And of course, we try to build strong relationships with our kids, our teachers, our counseling staff, our support staff. So we have an idea of which kids really are needing to take a break, kids we might see wandering who need a conversation or a gentle touch at that point.
Miller: And when wandering, you mean literally if you see kids just in the halls who look like they need help, you might go over to them?
Buckley: Yes. Kids who might be taking the long way back from the bathroom or what have you. We know our kids, so we know which kids might need a little extra conversation, “How are you doing? How was your weekend?”, that sort of thing.
Miller: Do you have enough staff now to actually do that? To have enough eyes on young people, and to have enough time to actually spend time with them?
Buckley: That’s a great question. I think that we’re like so many schools across the country in that we have a good number of counselors here, we have eight counselors here for about 2,600-2,700 kids. I’m a school social worker full time, we have another 0.5 school social worker. But I think like many other schools, we could always use more, we could always use more support. And I think that the pandemic has made that apparent, not just for our school, but so many schools across the country.
Miller: How much have students been supporting one another?
Buckley: This has been kind of a silver lining in some ways to this incident. We had a group of students who just came together and made a poster of La’Marcus, and had set it up during the lunch periods, and had students write cards, and sign the poster for La’Marcus’s family. And they just did that organically. They did that on their own. And that’s what we love to see, is our kids being leaders and supporting one another.
Miller: As a social worker who has worked really closely with young people for years now, how do you explain the level of violence that we’ve been seeing in Portland over just the last couple of years?
Buckley: How do I explain it to kids?
Miller: Well, that’s actually maybe even a better question. But I’m first wondering how you understand the epidemic of gun violence yourself, and then we can get to how you talk about it with the kids if there is even a difference.
Buckley: I think the lens that I use really is that as humans, we are all striving for significance and belonging. And violence and gangs and all of those things are ways to feel like kids have a mark, that they have influence and power, that they’re important. Carrying a gun can be really powerful, right? So how do we give kids those feelings of importance and significance and belonging in ways that are what we would call pro-social? That’s how I understand it, is that we’re looking for something that we’re just not getting.
Miller: Is everything you just said different from what you would say to a 16 year old who came to you and said why?
Buckley: Actually, that would probably be about the same thing that I would say to a 16 year old. But I’d ask more questions of course, and what their perspectives are, and what they think also,
Miller: What are the questions you find that you ask the most?
Buckley: I’m really curious about how this is impacting our individual students. So the students I get to see one on one. “How is this impacting you? What are you doing to cope? What are you doing to feel safe? Is it changing how your parents are parenting you?” I think that’s important, because sometimes the community and outdoors is so unsafe, that kids are having to be indoors a lot more than I think would be ideal. Those are the kinds of questions I would be asking.
Miller: Recently, we talked to a former gang member who runs a Portland based program that’s on call basically 24/7 to go to hospital rooms immediately after shootings to try to interrupt cycles of violence. Is that something that you’re specifically tasked with as well?
Buckley: No, I am not tasked with that. My job duties are strictly to be at the school to support our students. And students see me on a voluntary basis, so they’re not mandated to come see me. These are kids who are really wanting some mental health support and a listening ear.
Miller: I guess I was thinking less specifically about going to a hospital room, but more broadly about if you see the work you do as being even tangentially related to interrupting cycles of violence, as opposed to providing comfort and stability and love?
Buckley: Absolutely. But I think that by giving stability and love, we do interrupt those cycles. They’re interrelated. I really do focus on building strong relationships with students the best I can, and I know that we try to do that as a staff. That’s the emphasis, every meeting, is connecting with kids, being in the hallway so that we’re visible. That’s really where it comes down to. This is where it starts. That’s how violence is prevented in my view.
Miller: Can you give us a broader sense for how young people at your high school are doing these days?
Buckley: Well, my pithy response is everything that you’re reading and hearing about is true. All the articles - I just read a New York Times article about the mental health crisis, this is all true. The struggles with kids trying to regulate themselves and being disregulated at school, more fights, difficulties focusing, all of those things are accurate.
At the same time, we have kids doing amazing things here, and showing extraordinary resilience. But I think that this is where privilege comes in a little bit, is what kids really had parents who were available to them during the pandemic, who have resources to support them and to have them engaged in extracurriculars, etc.
Miller: Are any age groups broadly suffering more than others right now?
Buckley: I’ve been told that middle school and high schoolers are really where things are most difficult. I know that at the beginning of the year, just anecdotally, I felt like our freshmen and sophomores were struggling the most, not having been socialized to the mores of high school, and what’s expected and that sort of thing. They were struggling. I think it’s a slow process to get acclimated to this kind of environment.
Miller: There was some hope that being back in school full time for the entirety of this school year would provide more of a sense of normalcy and stability after so much of the tumultuousness you’re talking about. Has that happened? Have you seen, broadly, improvements in behavior since the fall?
Buckley: I think that’s so hard to say. We don’t know what it would have been like had we had more distance learning. But by all accounts, and I have polled all the students that I can talk to, they’re all preferring being here, they prefer being in person. Does that remedy the year and a half of challenges being online? And of course before that, there was still anxiety and depression and all the things.
It doesn’t necessarily improve the situation exponentially, but it is better than what it would have been, I believe.
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