CDC survey, mental health, teens, school security

New CDC Data Should Remind Schools: Report Indicators of Violence

A new survey released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned of an accelerating mental health crisis among U.S. teens, with more than 4 in 10 reporting that they feel “persistently sad or hopeless.”

According to the new data, in 2021, more than a third (37%) of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year. 

CDC Acting Principal Deputy Director Debra Houry called the survey a “cry for help,” noting that mental health among adolescents was already getting worse well before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A few months before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I wrote a white paper on school security with former U.S. Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan. I was employed by a risk intelligence firm at the time and Mark was a member of the advisory board. Here’s a look at how we approached the mental health aspects of preventing targeted acts of violence in schools — something every school administrator, teacher, and community member must be aware of in the immediate post-COVID environment.

Early Warning Threat Detection and Reporting

Statistics are important to understanding the risk profile of an organization, whether it’s a K-12 school, a college campus, or a private business enterprise. Statistics are how we identify trends and patterns.

But when it comes to mental health and conducting threat assessments of individuals who are potentially on a pathway to violence, the qualitative aspects of individual case histories are just as important, according to National Threat Assessment Center researcher Dr. Peter Langman.

“As important as aggregate data is, aggregate data never pulled a trigger,” Langman said, speaking at a 2019 Secret Service conference detailing the release of Protecting America’s Schools: A U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Targeted School Violence. “It’s always a unique individual.”

According to Langman, when you’re talking about mental health issues, you’re not dealing with hard facts. Expert sources often differ in their opinions. Mental health also involves normal human conditions like anger, depression, and anxiety. Any human being is likely to experience those three things at some point in their life. So the question becomes, at what point does someone’s anger, depression, or anxiety become a symptom?

“Most people will have some of these things. That doesn’t mean they’re on the path of becoming a killer,” Langman warned school administrators and resource officers.

According to Langman, mental health assessments involve what he calls contributing factors, constellations of symptoms, behaviors, and life experiences. In its study of school attackers, the Secret Service further divided these into psychological issues or symptoms and behavioral problems (neurological and developmental).

About 20% of kids end up receiving some sort of mental health or behavioral health diagnosis. In the latest U.S. Secret Service study of targeted violence, the percentage of kids having received a diagnosis was 40%. “So right off the bat, we’re seeing double the rate of diagnoses of some kind in these kids,” Langman said.

Psychological Symptoms: Pre- and Post-Pandemic


The new CDC analyses describe some of the severe challenges youth encountered during the pandemic:

  • More than half (55%) reported they experienced emotional abuse by a parent or other adult in the home, including swearing at, insulting, or putting down the student.
  • 11% experienced physical abuse by a parent or other adult in the home, including hitting, beating, kicking, or physically hurting the student.
  • More than a quarter (29%) reported that a parent or other adult in their home lost a job.


The most common symptoms in the attackers studied by the U.S. Secret Service prior to the COVID-19 pandemic were depression and suicidal thoughts. There were also cases of anxiety and intense explosive anger.

Seven of the 35 attackers exhibited psychotic symptoms. That could mean hearing voices or auditory hallucinations and experiencing paranoid delusions.

But do the psychotic symptoms cause these individuals to commit their attacks?

“Well, it’s never that simple,” said Langman. “Because if you look at the life history of these seven kids who had psychotic symptoms, you see all those other things going on with their lives. Some have family discord. There was parental substance abuse. There was physical abuse. Some of these kids had been sexually assaulted, [experienced] peer harassment, and witnessed violence. So, yes they may have had psychotic symptoms, but we cannot draw a line between psychotic symptoms and their attacks at school.”

Only two items occur in a majority of the population across both psychological and behavioral categories. Both depression and suicide were seen in 63% of the attackers. “No other symptom of behavior was as common as these two, and those go hand-in-hand,” according to Langman.

The Information Sharing Imperative

Reporting and sharing information about concerning behaviors, including possible mental health crises, is critical to school safety and security. However, a common roadblock to information sharing cited by education officials is the privacy law governing student information. Educators are well-versed in what student information they cannot share, but they are often far less informed about what they can do with the information they possess.

For example, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the federal statute governing the privacy of student records, has been in effect for more than 30 years and has broad application on campuses. However, administrators are still uncertain about FERPA’s mandates and its exceptions. As a result, schools often fail to take appropriate actions when clear signs of mental health problems emerge.

One of the biggest myths is that FERPA applies to all student information. In fact, FERPA governs the disclosure only of records and information from records, not information generally. Personal knowledge is not subject to FERPA, and its disclosure is not prohibited—even if it also happens to be recorded.

In addition, although the statute does apply broadly to almost all recorded student information, it offers leeway. For example, FERPA exempts several categories of records, including, most significantly, law enforcement records.

Community reporting of concerns about potential risks is the cornerstone of any school safety and security program. Reporting must be easy and intuitive and supported by technology that reflects how community members prefer to communicate. And reporting must be discreet, allowing for community members to share their concerns anonymously. Reporting of early warning threat indicators makes our schools safer places.

The Pre- and Post-COVID mental health crises have one thing in common: Schools must know and report the warning signs of violence.