Marshall superintendent says mental health the key issue in preventing school shootings

(From left) Marshall County Schools Superintendent Trent Lovett, Brian Cope, Teresa Cope, Jasen Holt and Secret Holt, parents of Bailey Holt and Preston Cope, addressed the Kentucky School Safety Working Group at Trigg County High School on Monday. -Venita Fritz/The Tribune-Courier

Fighting back tears, Marshall County Schools Superintendent Trent Lovett told a 10-member School Safety Working Group on Monday he had been in education for more than 30 years and had never experienced a more difficult day than Jan. 23. He was of course referring to the day alleged shooter Gabe Parker opened fire, killing two students and injuring 14 others.

Seated next to the parents of slain students Bailey Holt and Preston Cope, Lovett said, “My seat here is much easier than theirs. Jan. 23 was a trying day for all of us. One of our students took out two of his classmates and injured several others. I never thought I’d see the things I saw that day.”

Lovett said Jasen Holt and Brian Cope have been instrumental in formulating the school’s response to the shooting in the weeks and months that have followed. Both men have served on the district’s safety committee and Lovett said their input has been important in formulating the policies which have been put into place to better secure the school in the future.

“To have their voices at the table meant so much more to our committee than they will ever know. They both have younger students and we want our schools safe for them and all the others,” he said.

Lovett outlined the district’s response, both immediately following the shooting and in the months that followed, for the panel, saying, “Our number one goal is to make our schools a hard target,” pointing to the increase in School Resource Officers, the impending purchase of metal detectors and the requirement that students use only clear backpacks in the upcoming school year.

But Lovett said those, in his mind, were short-term fixes. He said the long-term solution to solving school shootings and other forms of school violence is to address mental health issues.

“The long-term issue that needs to be addressed is mental health. Counselors are key and we don’t need to wait until students are in high school to get students the help they need,” pointing to Teresa Cope who is a teacher at Sharpe Elementary. “It needs to start at a young age. I wish the funding was there for me to put a counselor in every school.”

A bill sponsored by state Rep. Will Coursey earlier this year would have called for districts across the state to hire more mental health professionals. It drew wide bipartisan support in the House, but was never discussed in the Senate.

Several speakers who addressed the Interim Joint Committee on Education on Monday said mental health is key in solving the problem of school violence.

Vestena Robbins, Executive Director for the Kentucky Department of Behavioral Health, Development and Intellectual Disabilities told the panel mental health disorders in children typically surface at age 14 and some surface as early as age 7. She said one in five students are estimated to have a diagnosable mental health disorder.

Jasen Holt, speaking before the meeting with lawmakers, said school safety is important to him and that’s why he’s been available to work with the district to formulate new policies and procedures. “We’ve got to secure our schools,” he said.

“Maybe if we’d had metal detectors in place (on Jan. 23) it would have prevented some of the madness,” his wife, Secret, added.

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