Editor’s note: Today’s guest editorial originally appeared in The (Tacoma) News Tribune. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.
“What kind of a world is this?” The question, spoken by a stunned teenager in Santa Clarita, California, last week, summed up America’s collective bewilderment after yet another school shooter struck, killing two fellow students and wounding three.
It could also sum up the mood in Pierce County a day earlier, when a Puyallup math teacher was arrested. She allegedly told a caseworker, then a sheriff’s deputy, that she would “just go to the school and shoot the kids.”
In what kind of world does a veteran educator, hired to teach in the Puyallup School District 19 years ago, suddenly snap? In what kind of world does a teacher transform overnight from a familiar face at Emerald Ridge High School to a person whom prosecutors consider a “threat to community safety”?
In what kind of world does a 58-year-old woman resort to making desperate, then menacing, pleas for help, claiming she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and can’t afford treatment?
Make no mistake, what Julie Hillend-Jones is accused of doing is an extreme case, and a felony harassment charge fits the circumstances. “Schools all across our country have become shooting zones for children, and that is one of the reasons this is taken so seriously by everyone,” Pierce County Superior Court Commissioner Craig Adams said before he sent Hillend-Jones to jail in lieu of $50,000 bail. He’ll get no argument from us.
But this sad episode, caused by a woman with no criminal record and no guns at home, should serve notice: Looking out for the interests of Pierce County kids means doing the same for their teachers. That includes ensuring excellent mental health resources are available, and watching for red-flag behavior.
Teachers in our region are regularly exposed to violence, both real and threatened. More prevalent, however, is the secondary trauma that can come from their work, day after day, serving children weighed down by a host of burdens — from hunger to homelessness, abuse to divorce, bullying to suicide ideation. It can lead to compassion fatigue, burnout and, for some educators, perhaps even PTSD.
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“As people who are in the trenches, we think we’re supposed to be there for everyone else, and we often ignore the signs when our stress has gone beyond what is normal,” said state Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, a Snohomish County Democrat who’s also an Everett School District counselor.
Ortiz-Self testified in February for a bill to create online materials to support Washington teachers affected by secondary traumatic stress. It was unanimously approved by the House, then oddly died without getting a floor vote in the Senate.
With regard to workers compensation coverage, teachers aren’t eligible for benefits to deal with stress-caused mental conditions. When a caseworker gave that information to Hillend-Jones in a phone call, she blew up.
In 2018, Washington extended this coverage for the first time to law enforcement officers and firefighters. Is it time to discuss doing it for teachers, too?
The state teachers union hasn’t flagged this as a concern and doesn’t list it as a legislative priority. “It’s very clear that students themselves are facing a lot of trauma and stress, and our focus is on making sure they get the support they need,” Washington Education Association spokesman Rich Wood told us Tuesday.
While the kids-first emphasis is appropriate, education leaders would be remiss not to examine what more can be done to care for teachers.
School districts should spare no effort to promote free, confidential mental-health and crisis support available through their employee assistance programs. And the Legislature should take a fresh look at bills like what Ortiz-Self sponsored this year.
There’s absolutely no excuse for a teacher to spook a community like a veteran Puyallup teacher did last week. But there may be ways to lessen the odds that another teacher at wit’s end will explode with threats, or worse.