Mentally troubled students overwhelm schools

One boy's struggle with “Mr. Angry” highlights a growing dilemma: Thousands of kids with mental problems rely on schools for care.

He said that a voice in his head, the one he sometimes calls Mr. Angry, told him to bring it to school — and threatened to punish him if he didn’t.

Hours later, after getting angry with his teacher, Gianni set fire to a bulletin board outside a special education classroom. The blaze was quickly doused with water bottles, but school officials had him arrested. He was charged with arson.

Gianni, who has been seeing a psychologist since the age of 3, spent the next 37 days in juvenile detention, five times longer than the typical adolescent accused of a crime in Ramsey County.

“I knew setting a fire was bad, but I didn’t belong in there,” said Gianni, who turned 15 while incarcerated. “Sometimes, my brain thinks of horrible things I don’t want to do.”

Gianni is one of thousands of students afflicted with serious mental health problems who are flooding into Minnesota schools because they have nowhere else to go.

Their complex needs are bringing huge and at times dangerous challenges to special education classrooms that are already struggling to handle increasing numbers of students with other handicaps, including multiple disabilities.

In an era of tight budgets, Minnesota has retreated from more intensive adolescent mental health treatment options, at times leaving schools as a setting of last resort for students with problems ranging from schizophrenia to bipolar disorder. And even as special education teachers and specialists try to help, many are now working forever on edge — fearful that recurring outbursts by deeply troubled students could injure them or other children.

“Schools are in over their heads with mental health,” said Mark Kuppe, CEO of Canvas Health, a nonprofit company that works with schools to provide mental health services. “They think they can hire a few social workers and school psychologists to deal with this, but the reality is those folks aren’t trained in the clinical work.”

Brenda Cassellius, commissioner of the Minnesota Education Department, said she’s hearing a growing chorus of complaints from school districts that feel overwhelmed by students’ mental health needs. Schools need more mental health professionals, she said, but can’t afford to hire them.

“We just can’t meet the demand,” Cassellius said.

Superintendent Connie Hayes said the problem has reached “crisis” proportions even at schools such as hers in Intermediate District 916 in the northeast metro that are designed to handle children with the worst behavioral problems. A decade ago, she said, students with mental illness were rare. Now 75 percent of her students have mental health issues.

“It’s like night and day,” she said.

Her district does what it can to provide clinical services with limited resources, Hayes said.“But it simply is not enough.”

 

‘Can’t take responsibility’

Gianni set his first fire at the age of 6.

His mother, Shameka Griffin, remembers her son coming into her bedroom and waking her up about 3 a.m.

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  • Gianni, who has a history of psychosis, often slips into a fantasy world, talking to himself and battling imaginary enemies.

  • Three weeks after Gianni set the fire at school, Shameka told her mother that he would have to stay in juvenile detention until a judge determined whether he was mentally competent to face arson charges.

  • While incarcerated, Gianni wrote this letter to a county prosecutor, saying “i’m a really good kid” who sometimes does things that are “extreamly wrong.” He asked to go home with his mother because “I am always safe at home.”

  • Gianni’s relatives welcomed him home May 23 after he spent 37 days in juvenile detention.

  • More than three weeks after his 15th birthday, Gianni was finally able to have fun with a family party at Water Park of America.

  • Gianni retreated to his bedroom to escape the noisy party held the night he was released from jail.

  • Alone in his back yard, Gianni battled imaginary foes while relatives inside the house celebrated his homecoming.

  • After a judge kept Gianni in jail, Shameka Griffin arrived home about the time her son usually got off the school van.

  • Shameka walked with Gianni into the Anoka County courthouse for a hearing on her son’s mental competence.

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