Mount Horeb school shooting incident underscores student mental health crisis - TAI News
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Law enforcement personnel respond to a report of a person armed with a rifle at Mount Horeb Middle School in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Wednesday, May 1, 2024. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

Ron Lutz had just sat down to eat lunch on May 1 when he received a text from his 16-year-old daughter, Freja, around 11:30 a.m.

“I love you dad,” it read. At first, Lutz was a little surprised to receive the text out of the blue, but he assumed it was just a sweet reminder from Freja.

Then he got an emergency alert on his phone saying there was an active shooter at Mount Horeb Middle School, across the street from Freja’s high school. The sirens at the fire station near his house started going off. Lutz immediately got in his car and drove to the school.

Shortly after 11 a.m., students at the middle school say they spotted a classmate tapping a long gun on a cafeteria window. Mount Horeb police officers responded to the scene and shot and killed the student after he didn’t comply with demands to drop the weapon and pointed the gun — which turned out to be a pellet rifle, the Wisconsin Department of Justice said — at the officers. The student never entered the school and no one else was injured.

Some students ran, while others barricaded themselves in classrooms. Students remained on lockdown across the district into the evening as police investigated and interviewed students, Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul said.

Robin Wasikowski was on the phone inside her house across the street from the middle school when her doorbell rang. She thought at first it might be a package being delivered, but it kept ringing. “Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. It was screaming,” she said. When she answered the door, kids ran inside, and she heard gunshots.

“They couldn’t stand, they were scared. They’re just falling down,” she said.

Three students and a substitute teacher sought shelter in Wasikowski’s house. The students called their parents and waited out the lockdown. All the while, Wasikowski didn’t know if her own daughter was okay in her fourth grade classroom.

Eventually, her daughter texted her from a police officer’s phone to let her know she was OK. They weren’t reunited until about 6 p.m.

Lutz and his ex-wife sat in the grass at the school district’s bus garage for nine hours waiting to be reunited with Freja. “Even though you know they’re OK and you’re in communication with them, it’s not until you actually can hug them, you know?” he said.

Wisconsin does not have safe storage laws, which require firearm owners to store guns a certain way. The state requires some mental health reporting when conducting background checks for people buying firearms, but background checks are only required when buying from a shop licensed with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Anyone buying a firearm privately or at a gun show isn’t subject to a background check. Pellet guns are not considered firearms under state law.

In 2018, the DOJ launched an Office of School Safety, which operates a 24/7 hotline and provides threat assessments for schools. But the program has struggled with funding. Republican lawmakers refused to fully fund the office in the last budget, and instead, the DOJ is using one-time dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act to fund the program through this school year.

Parents worried about student mental health

The Mount Horeb community is now picking up the pieces after the traumatic event and residents are thinking about what went wrong leading up to that afternoon.

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, the student who was killed appeared to struggle with mental health, saying online he didn’t fit in at school and obsessing over school shootings.

“This boy was suffering,” Wasikowski said. “Something was wrong, obviously. And somebody should have heard that poor baby. And we failed him.”

In Wisconsin, students are reporting increased struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. A student survey revealed in 2022 that Wisconsin teenagers reported the highest rate of suicidal thoughts since 2003.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers declared 2023 the Year of Mental Health and met with school district staff and students around the state. In his last budget, he proposed an additional $270 million to expand mental health services in schools, but it was cut by Republican lawmakers. The Department of Public Instruction announced in March that it would allocate nearly $12 million from the federal Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, signed by President Joe Biden in June 2022, to help school districts support student mental health.

It wasn’t surprising to Lutz that the shooting happened, even in Mount Horeb, a small town of just under 8,000 people. Gun violence isn’t going anywhere, he said, even if new laws are passed. And while gun violence happens for a number of reasons, such as homicides or domestic violence incidents, he said communities have the power to improve the mental and emotional wellbeing of their younger residents. He said students should be taught more coping skills and empathy, and that there should be more outreach for children and teenagers who are struggling.

“I think the solution is in getting people to be kinder and more understanding to each other so they don’t turn to violence,” he said.

Wasikowski has been giving out her address and phone number to parents and community members since the incident.

“Maybe we need to, as community members, get to know each other. I want people to know who I am. I want people to know that I’m right across the street from the school, and if their kid needs to ring my doorbell again, that they are welcome here, that you have my phone number and you know that they’re in a safe place,” she said. “Because that’s how we have to get through things like this. We have to build a better sense of community. We just have to.”

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