When Salem Reporter education journalist Rachel Alexander was 13, she got suspended from school for a week. This was a few years after the mass shooting at Columbine High School. An offhand comment she made on the bus was reported to school administrators, and it led them to conduct a risk assessment. In a recent essay for the Guardian, Alexander wrote that the process that followed "didn't seem designed to keep anyone safe."
Rachel Alexander spoke with OPB’s “Weekend Edition” about her experience and what it says about the debates we have today over school safety. Here are some highlights from the conversation:
On the comment from the bus:
“I had kind of a regular group and we’d usually play cards and hang out. There was one boy who would get bullied a lot by the others, they were calling him a faggot, and I would often try to get them to stop. On this particular day, one of the boys was like, 'Well, why should I?' And I‘d kind of run out of other reasons, like maybe just be a decent person, so I said, you know, 'Look at what happened at Columbine,' which at the time was understood as a case of two boys who were bullied and then sort of snapped and started shooting people. Now we know more about what happened, and that’s not really the full picture. But that’s what came to mind, and I said that. … I’d totally forgotten about it by the time we arrived at school. It was a very offhand thing.”
On learning the comment had been reported:
“At some point, both of my parents got a phone call saying they needed to meet with school administrators the following morning, which was a Tuesday. There was no other context so they were both like, 'What did you do?' I was freaked out, I was like, 'I genuinely have no idea.' Both parents drove me to school that morning and I just sat in the car in the parking lot. I was terrified. They came out … they just said, 'You’re barred from school, the district has to do a risk assessment.' They had this formal paper laying out what I’d supposedly said, and there were some other comments on there that I’d said in the preceding weeks, too. … It was kind of this collection of things which, on paper, looked really scary, but didn’t feel like it reflected me, or my life, or anything remotely real at all.”
On struggling with mental health as a young teenager:
“I now, as an adult, recognize that I had clinical depression. I’ve done a lot of therapy, I have medication, I have all these tools to help me deal with that. But that stuff wasn’t talked about as much as it is now, and I just felt sort of alone and abnormal … I was also researching macabre topics: ecological disasters, and school shootings, and Ebola outbreaks. Because that sort of helped me deal with all of the dark things in my head, to know that there were dark things going on in the world around me.”
On how the process was mishandled:
"One of the big things that I know they try to do in schools is if there’s a suspected threat or something reported that causes concern, you look at how serious it could be. Does someone actually have access to a gun? That’s a good indication that they’re maybe more at risk of committing a school shooting or killing themselves than someone who’s just talking but has no way to actually carry that out. So there was no attempt to assess any research-based risk factors like, does she have a weapon? I didn’t. Does she have a plan? Does she have specific targets in mind? The other thing was that, the administrators who made this decision, I’d never really talked to. I didn’t know them, they didn’t know me. There was no effort to talk to any of my teachers, any adults who knew me, friends, my parents, before they just kind of went for the nuclear option and kicked me out of school.”
On how it affected her communication with adults:
“The whole process was designed in a way that made me feel like anything I shared or spoke about that seemed abnormal to adults would be used as evidence that I was a threat to other students, and would be held against me and used to keep me away from my friends. So, of course, I wasn’t honest about depression, or the fact that I’d been self-harming that year. It kind of solidified this idea that I think a lot of mentally ill young people have that you just shouldn’t talk to adults about your problems.”
On how she views topics like school safety and student mental health as a reporter, given her experience:
"For me, it solidified the importance of actually talking to teenagers whenever I can about these issues. Every time I talk to high school students in Salem about things like what the district's doing on suicide prevention, or to address student behavioral problems, I get really different answers and perspectives than when I talk to the adults who are doing that work. Teens are the experts on their own lives, and they understand the world around them … it's also made me interested in how risk assessments have evolved and changed. Salem-Keizer [School District] in particular has pioneered a system that is very different than the zero-tolerance approach that I think was common when I was younger in that post-Columbine era, that is focused on keeping kids in school when they're able to."
To listen to the full conversation, use the audio player at the top of this story.