Since the fatal Parkland, Fla., school shooting, Tennessee has been hearing more school violence threats through the state’s hotline for youth experiencing a mental health crisis. In the past two weeks, one nonprofit has dispatched its counselors to meet face-to-face with more than 40 young people regarding threats.
That’s in sharp contrast to a typical week, when it would be rare to field more than one school threat call.
“Teachers and students and families are definitely calling us maybe in times where, before, it may have been overlooked,” said Brittany Farrar, director of specialized crisis services for Youth Villages.
The Memphis-based nonprofit is one of four statewide that answers the hotline and dispatches counselors. Youth Villages handles about 70 percent of the state, including all of Middle Tennessee except for Davidson County.
“We are hopeful that by receiving those calls, it’s going to help us reach some of those students we wouldn’t before, and we can hopefully be proactive in connecting them to the help that they need,” she said.
While anyone can call the state hotline — at 855-CRISIS-1 — it’s often used by teachers, hospital staff, or parents. Because the call-takers are trained counselors, some aid can be provided immediately. When warranted, an in-person visit can follow, usually within 2 hours.
The counselors meet the student, teachers, family or police and together create a safety plan. That could include buying a lockbox to guard a weapon or enlisting a weekly in-home counselor. Some cases lead to hospitalization or juvenile charges or detainment.
Farrar said there can be a stigma about calling the hotline, but she says that’s being outweighed by fears of another school shooting.
“There’s a lot of heightened anxiety and fear right now,” she said. “What we see more often than not is where a child has placed something that raises concern on social media.”
Despite the uptick in calls, Farrar said she’s giving her staff more breaks, and asking supervisors to help on complicated cases. The team has also increased its number of follow-up calls.
She’s taking these measures because of the high stakes of the cases — for the students, the safety of the community and for the counselors.
“Obviously, when there are threats of mass violence, that does increase your worry meter,” she said.
While Youth Villages has reported an uptick, especially with school-related calls, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services has not logged a notable increase across the state. The number — an average of about 1,500 calls per month — has been steady for the past year.
The bulk of those calls go through Youth Villages, which reported that 60 percent led to a face-to-face visit in fiscal year 2017.