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Von Saunders at West High School

West High School psychologist Von Saunders said he thinks teachers are more stressed about school violence than he is. "They are interacting with the whole student body a bit more. They're hyper-aware. They really care about safety and wouldn't ever want to miss anything."

As a school psychologist in the Madison School District, Von Saunders has privileged access to the fears, foibles, dreams and day-to-day heartbreaks — especially heartbreaks — of local students.

With eight years in the field so far, he worked his first three in the Sauk Prairie School District, then moved to Madison, working at Black Hawk Middle School for three years before spending the past two at West High School.

But while the places, faces and ages have changed, one theme has stayed the same, he said. Kids, similar to many adults, seem to have the most trouble navigating through relationships, especially with the opposite sex.

“The main issue, if I’m going to be completely honest, the most common reason students come to see me, is around relationships,” Saunders said. “In particular, romantic relationships are a major focus. Questions of how do I manage relationships, both boys and girls ask those.”

But it’s not only love. Again mirroring society as a whole, the students he serves are often dealing with depression and clinical anxiety, especially in high school.

“It can be a very high-pressure environment for high school students — pressure from parents and staff, to really excel,” he said. “So how you deal with that pressure is another very common discussion.”

So what do you tell students, generally, about handling heartbreak and academic pressure?

It’s mostly about promoting their individuality — how relationships are part of one’s life, but it’s not your whole life. You’re dealing with this breakup, say, and that’s tough, but what can you focus on right now to enrich yourself in other ways? With pressures, it’s again focusing on what do you want to do in life, what are you passionate about, and helping them move down that path.

Student fears of violence in schools, from within and without, is much in the news now, including in Madison. How do you help students through that?

(Recently) I spoke with a student who was very stuck on and very concerned about gun safety and gun laws and policies around that. And he wanted to be able to make a change. He is experiencing some fear for his own safety, and trying to figure out what he can do to change that.

One of the things that is really important for that is I talk to them about possibility as opposed to probability, how there’s a difference between something that is possible vs. likely to happen. We can’t guarantee something will never happen, so it’s about just validating their feelings — how it is really hard to understand why these violent things happen, and how we’re all trying to figure this out.

And it’s about helping them find a voice again. A lot of them want to feel like they’re doing something on this issue. So finding an opportunity for them to share those views, whether in a class or out of it, (is key). It’s also about being part of a community as a way to move forward, because as an individual you may be limited, but you can find like-minded individuals and act together. The school walkout (Wednesday) is a great example of that.

What about assessing whether students pose a risk of violence to themselves and/or others?

We try to take all threats seriously. Often I’m not the first line of who hears a possible threat. Often that person is a dean in the hallway or a security staff member, and they will report what they’ve heard. Then it will come to me. We have a violence risk assessment protocol ... and we will interview the student to try to learn about their lives and any challenges they may be facing. Together we try to determine where the student is at and how serious it is.

Almost all of it is finding some sort of social support for them, something to make them feel more connected, to an adult in the community and an adult in school, and to explore the reasons behind the threat. The vast majority are not going to follow through, but it’s a sign something is there that needs work. If we think there may be a valid threat, that’s when law enforcement may get involved.

What limits do you feel in your work?

One thing is staffing. There are (accepted) ratios for psychologists to students, and we’re way off. We need four full-time psychologists and we have two (at West).

Also, education and mental health are connected, so it makes sense that some of that intervention would happen here. But we also end up with a big problem, when students are ready for mental health intervention in the community, but don’t have insurance to access it, or if they do, there’s a long waiting list, especially to see a psychiatrist, someone who can prescribe medication.

Another (limitation) is about school violence. Sometimes there can be parents who demonstrate (violence) as a problem-solving tool. That’s where the student learned it, that if someone disrespects me, I have to (physically) do something about it.

If students could get the example at home that you can solve problems non- violently, that you don’t ever use violence to uphold your reputation or ego, that would be really helpful. We can feel like we’re working against the home environment in that respect, and we don’t have a great answer for that.

— Interview by Karen Rivedal

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