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When a student is shot and killed, Cleveland schools' mental health team springs into action

Bill Stencil, executive director of the the Humanware/SEL department in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, works in his office on Wednesday, April 19, 2023.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Bill Stencil, executive director of the the Humanware/SEL department in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, works in his office on Wednesday, April 19, 2023.

Pierre McCoy was waiting for a bus on a cold January day, just outside John Adams High School in Cleveland, when a person in a ski mask walked up to the 18-year-old student and shot and killed him.

Andrea Dockery-Murray, a John Adams art teacher who has taught at Cleveland Metropolitan School District for almost 30 years, says the shooting affected everyone at the school but especially the dozens of students and staff who saw it firsthand.

People were very, very traumatized, students were traumatized,” she said. “We had students that were there with him at the bus stop that witnessed it firsthand, along with other staff members and our own principal.”

When the shooting happened, calls came into the CMSD’s Rapid Response Team’s desk. It’s a central phone people call when crises occur, which mobilizes support services quickly to help students and staff dealing with trauma and mental health crises. Bill Stencil, who oversees the desk, says a team of psychologists, counselors and others were sent out to John Adams High School soon after the shooting.

The exterior of John Adams High School, located on Cleveland's east side.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
The exterior of John Adams High School, located on Cleveland's east side.

It wasn’t the only time a school-wide response like that was needed this school year. Twelve CMSD students were shot and killed between fall 2022 and late spring 2023. Beyond that, according to data provided by Stencil, the Rapid Response Team sent out support to 950 different situations, ranging from students struggling with suicidal thoughts to reports of students experiencing abuse at home.

The data, and interviews with staff, provide a sobering look at the trauma and challenges students experience in the school district serving one of the poorest large cities in America.

Stencil, who is executive director of the district’s Humanware department, created the Rapid Response Team concept in the 1990s after he watched the way the Red Cross operated in disaster zones.

"They put up a table and a tent and a flag and everything that's happening all funnels through there," he explained.

The core of the team is very small, just Stencil and two crisis response coordinators who take the calls, but they can marshal into action a considerable number of people, more than 200 staff at any given time. These can be school nurses, psychologists and counselors stationed in schools, along with additional support from area mental health agencies who have partnerships with the school district.

Dockery, the John Adams teacher, says support from the Rapid Response Team was welcomed at John Adams, which had a presence at the school for months after Pierre McCoy’s death. There were designated rooms for students and staff to see a counselor or psychologist, while some also shadowed classrooms to watch for signs of students in need of support.

Dockery says staff were struggling to come to grips with the sudden and violent loss of their student, and the mental health supports were beneficial for them.

“If you had that young man in your class and he came in, and he always had a conversation with you,” she said, “How do you not think about that?”

What kinds of things are students dealing with?

The Rapid Response Team deals with a variety of calls about traumatic incidents each year. An Ideastream Public Media review of data and incidents collected by the team over the last ten years provides just a glimpse of some of what they respond to. Sometimes, a schoolwide response is needed – as in the case of the John Adams incident – when a student is shot and killed, or when a beloved educator who touched many lives dies suddenly.

But individual students and smaller groups also demand a significant amount of attention, the data shows. For example, the parent of four students died in a car accident during the 2015-2016 school year. Students on several occasions reported discovering dead bodies while walking to school during the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years. A child watched their father attempt to commit suicide in the 2017-2018 school year. And a suicidal student was taken to the hospital after experiencing abuse by a family member in the 2015-2016 school year.

A breakdown of the type of calls the Rapid Response Team at CMSD received in the 2021-2022 school year (there were about 800 calls during this particular school year).
Cleveland Metropolitan School District
A breakdown of the type of calls the Rapid Response Team at CMSD received in the 2021-2022 school year (there were about 800 calls during this particular school year).

Suicidal thoughts are the most-common issue the team responds to each year, making up at least 50% of calls most years, with reports coming into the desk of 457 students struggling with that alone this most-recent school year.

It says two things to me, at least two, one is the stress they're under and (the other is) some don't have anybody to go to,” Stencil said.

Staff also responded to 76 reports of physical and sexual abuse this year. The calls can lead to students being taken to hospitals, or the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services or police can get involved. But most of the time, less serious cases are resolved with help in-school or at home, the data shows.

In general, the number of incidents the team responds to – outside of a dip during the pandemic years when schools were closed - appears to have increased each year since 2013-2014, from 595 that school year to a high of 957 this most-recent school year. Stencil said that's likely the result of more people calling the rapid response desk because of their awareness of the resource, rather than more crises happening; he said there are also likely many incidents being resolved by psychologists and staff in schools before it reaches a crisis level.

Tye’Shae Reynolds, a mental health provider stationed at John Adams High School, says students at her school are dealing with a lot of stressors and adversity, coming from impoverished neighborhoods.

Counselor Tye'Shae Reynolds stands in the hallway of John Adams High School earlier this month.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
Counselor Tye'Shae Reynolds stands in the hallway of John Adams High School earlier this month.

“I take it a little personally because I am a CMSD graduate, and I understand some of the environments and things that my children face, and they face it on a way larger grand scale than I did when I was a kid,” she said.

CMSD partners with many area mental health organizations, like Reynold’s agency, the Positive Education Program, that either have physical desks at schools or are called in to provide additional support through the rapid response team.

According to the crisis response data, the three most-common stressors cited by students over the last ten years were “family problems,” followed by mental health issues and bullying and harassment, although physical and sexual abuse was another commonly cited stressor. Reynolds said Pierre McCoy’s killing wasn’t many students’ first brush with gun violence.

“A lot of these kids feel stuck,” she said. “They feel trapped … even though that happened on campus, which makes it more traumatic, more scary, some of these kids are faced with similar situations every day.”

She said many students have pulled strength from adversity they face and are resilient, coming back to school day in and day out and working hard on their academics.

Andrea Dockery-Murray, the art teacher at John Adams, added there are a lot of great students at the school with hardworking families; she said the school shouldn't be defined just by struggles students face.

"We have students with stable working parents, stable homes; people would think that, just because they live on a certain street, it's not that way," she noted.

Crisis response models at work elsewhere

Dan Flannery, director of the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University, specializes in violence prevention in education.

He says schools across the country are dealing with increased numbers of students dealing with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts; U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in a visit to Cleveland said young people across the country are dealing with a “mental health crisis” due to feelings of isolation during the pandemic as well as the harmful effects of social media, among various other stressors.

Flannery says many school districts across the country, including Cleveland and Akron, have developed crisis response teams in recent decades. That’s partly due to the effect of trauma on students’ education but also out of necessity.

Many districts don't have the day-to-day capacity of school counselors and social workers and psychologists to provide those services in school, like any kind of ongoing support,” Flannery said.

Flannery said these systems do help students learn to cope with hardship, but noted school systems are struggling to keep up with systemic issues that require broader societal reforms, like gun violence.

Dan Flannery.
Steve Zorc
Case Western Reserve University
Dan Flannery.

Cleveland Metropolitan School District as of 2022 had 86 psychologists on staff, some of whom provide coverage for multiple buildings, as well as a full-time nurse in every building, along with guidance counselors in each high school-level building. That’s in addition to partnerships with area mental health agencies and healthcare providers who also have a presence in schools, CMSD’s Stencil said.

Akron Public Schools have similar resources in place. The district had 70 in-school psychologists in 2022 and a guidance counselor in each school building, in addition to area partnerships with mental health agencies like CMSD.

Erich Merkle, central office school psychologist for Akron Public Schools, said partnerships with area agencies are key in order to ensure students are adequately helped when dealing with larger crises. Merkle referenced the death of a building administrator who worked in multiple school buildings for years impacting students and staff.

"So we need to make sure each one of those buildings had outreach and a corresponding response that would ensure that the students who knew and cared about him could process and debrief on their immediate reactions and dealing with the loss and grief feelings, but also the staff,” Merkle said.

It’s also important to meet students where they’re at, Merkle said, with after-school help available and a communication plan developed - often soon after a tragedy - to share information and resources with the broader schools community as necessary.

Cleveland does have one thing that sets it apart from Akron, however: Say Yes Cleveland’s family support specialists. There's one specialist in each school building, and they often have a background in social work. Advocates say they also serve as a line of defense in noticing students struggling and figuring out how the school or broader community can help them.

In the time since the shooting at John Adams, CMSD spokesperson Roseann Canfora says the district has launched additional wraparound supports meant to help schools in the time after an initial crisis has concluded. These include grief counseling, help with coping skills and anger management, and specialty programming for focus on young men, women and LGBTQ+ scholars or those with disabilities. Some mindfulness programming is available, including yoga.

Limitations, and moving forward

Tye’Shae Reynolds, the counselor at John Adams, said in the wake of Pierre McCoy’s killing at John Adams, students felt lost, scared and were somewhat hesitant to talk to the Rapid Response Team members in the building whom they weren’t familiar with.

“As you can imagine, when something tragic happens, nobody wants to talk to strangers,” she said. “So it was kind of overwhelming in my office because they were more familiar with me.”

She noted she ended up providing group counseling sessions to students who were impacted by the shooting.

John Adams teacher Andrea Dockery-Murray said she noticed a similar issue – students being hesitant to talk to support staff who weren't regulars in the building. She saw a potential solution in positions like Reynolds' where staff have a desk in the building and interact with students regularly. That, she said, could help students even when not in times of crisis.

“We need to find a way to hire people that can stay in one building so that they have these connections and relationships with the staff and the students and the community,” she said. “It’s not like these people cannot be shared. However, if you have one person that can be your person, how great could that be?”

Bill Stencil, with CMSD’s rapid response team, says the district tries its best to use the schools’ existing support staff first in times of crisis. but when a tragedy happens that impacts an entire school, staff from outside the building can be needed.

Dockery-Murray noted that in the day immediately following the shooting at John Adams, teachers, staff and students were expected to return to the building; however, she said enough teachers and staff called off that the building was closed.

"We all have to get a grip on the fact that this poor child just got killed," she said. "It was only closed because there were not going to be enough teachers in the building to teach the students."

CMSD spokesperson Roseann Canfora said the district has only closed a school due to the death of a student once: the day after the school shooting at SuccessTech Academy in 2007.

"We do not automatically close schools as the result of a student or staff death," she said. "We want our students to have access to and be able to engage with known and trusted teachers, along with the support of mental health providers, and not be left at home or in the community without access to supports."

In the wake of that school shooting, the school district developed dual approaches of both "hardware" - with security measures like metal detectors - as well as "Humanware," the department that CMSD's Bill Stencil leads, focused on providing emotional and mental-health supports to students. That work is meant to provide healthy ways for students to cope with tough subjects like grief and loss.

The bus stop outside John Adams High School, where Pierre McCoy was shot and killed in January 2023, now bears art memorializing McCoy.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
The bus stop outside John Adams High School, where Pierre McCoy was shot and killed in January 2023, now bears art memorializing McCoy.

Reynolds said she helped students process their anger in the wake of the shooting at John Adams, including guiding one student to find support to organize a protest outside the building earlier this year. That student, Lavashanay Morris, told CMSD student blogger Chardon Black she wanted the school district to do more to ensure students' safety, in addition to memorializing Pierre McCoy's life and speaking out about gun violence in Cleveland.

Outgoing CMSD CEO Eric Gordon has said the district is working with Cleveland police to have more patrols around schools. Meanwhile, the Greater Cleveland RTA has adjusted bus routes at four schools, including John Adams and adopted other changes in partnership with the city. Gordon said earlier this year that sometimes students were waiting almost an hour at stops for a bus to come pick them up after school.

A Cleveland Police Department spokesperson said nobody has been arrested for the killing of Pierre McCoy.

In the time since the shooting, the rapid response team members eventually left John Adams, and now students have left for the summer too. Tye’Shae Reynolds has packed up her office for the summer, too.

However, on the bus stop outside the school, where Pierre McCoy was shot, a stark reminder remains: artwork of a young Black child with the wings of an angel.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.