Superintendent sought student mental health help months before shooting at Richfield school
District 287 serves some of the Twin Cities most vulnerable students
Prosecutors have charged two students with second-degree murder and attempted murder in a shooting that killed a 15-year-old student outside South Education Center in Richfield, Minn., on Tuesday.
According to the criminal complaint from the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, five male students walked out of the school building and started to fight in the parking lot. One of the students allegedly pulled a gun out of his pocket and fired shots. Then that student and another student got into a car and drove away, continuing to fire several more shots.
Jahmari Rice was killed and another 17-year-old student remains in critical condition, according to authorities.
This incident is not the first time this academic year a student from District 287 has allegedly had a gun. The first week of school in September 2021, district leaders said a student brought a gun to school.
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Sandy Lewandowski, the district superintendent, called it a serious safety incident at the time and sent out a communication to district staff, students and families, promising to do a comprehensive review of all district safety measures.
In the note, Lewandowski insisted a safe school environment did not depend on metal detectors, which had been removed from district buildings. Instead, she urged staff to focus on a much more comprehensive approach, including measures like building relationships and empathy, noticing when “someone seems ‘off,’” and regularly assessing students’ physical and emotional well-being.
District 287 is an intermediate district that serves some of Minnesota’s most vulnerable students, including children with autism, fetal alcohol syndrome and cognitive or emotional disorders. The school’s model relies on a small army of staff working together to support students, often with one-on-one intervention.
Within the last several years the district has made investments to become more trauma-responsive — training staff in trauma, crisis and de-escalation. The district replaced its school resource officers with student safety coaches and removed metal detectors from their buildings.
But as the pandemic tore through Minnesota, Lewandowski began raising concerns about its effect on the student population. At the end of the 2020-2021 school year, she published an op-ed in the Star Tribune titled, “The kids are not OK,” in which she shared that over the first five months of 2021 she’d received eight notices about deaths affecting her student population.
“Whether by suicide, drug overdose or community violence, their deaths point back to one thing: Our young people are not OK, and their mental health is severely at risk,” she wrote.
In that op-ed and other communications, she pleaded with community members, lawmakers and political leaders to consider the impact of the pandemic and systemic racism on children. She urged them to do more to provide new and more intense forms of mental health help in her schools and others across the state.
“Students’ unmet mental health needs and school safety incidents are inextricably connected,” Lewandowski wrote. “We are getting a clearer picture of the consequences of this past year on students’ mental health and the increasing responsibility of schools to be on the front line of the children’s mental health system.”
By the end of September 2021, according to an email from a district spokesperson to MPR News, Lewandowski had sent more than 27 communications and made numerous phone calls to two governors, three Minnesota Department of Education commissioners, congresspeople, legislators and the chair of the governor’s children’s Cabinet among others, warning them about “the extraordinary needs of District 287.”
She called the district’s reality a “red alert,” saying the pandemic and race-related trauma were compounding the severe mental health conditions students in the district were already experiencing.
Beyond student mental health challenges, the district, like almost every other in Minnesota, has been struggling with a severe staffing shortage. It was a problem Lewandowski said caused challenges to “from general safety to … personal well-being” for staff and students.
According to a district spokesperson, Education Commissioner Heather Mueller was “engaged to find a solution” on the occasions when Lewandowski reached out by phone to discuss critical safety issues — interactions Lewandowski saw as “steps in the right direction.” The superintendent also said hopeful about Gov. Tim Walz’s budget recommendations, which she said includes measures that would “be supportive to our district.”
According to the state Education Department, District 287 has received a federally funded five-year grant meant to improve their school mental health system.
The warnings from Lewandowski show a history of concern about behaviors she saw from students in her schools as well as concerns that her district didn’t have the resources to meet student needs.
James Densley, a professor at Metropolitan State University and co-founder of The Violence Project, a nonpartisan research center focused on youth violence and school shootings, said his research supports a comprehensive approach to school safety that involves much more than metal detectors and school resource officers. Getting to real solutions about preventing school violence, according to Densley, involves understanding the root of what causes the violence.
“Violence is increasing. And the schools that seem to be bearing the brunt of that violence are urban schools which historically have low graduation rates, which are working with students who are coming from the most disadvantaged circumstances and they are disproportionately students of color,” Densley said. “School violence is a social justice issue. We absolutely need to be focused like a laser beam on violence prevention, because it’s affecting the most vulnerable in our society.”
Densley said his research discourages knee-jerk safety measures such as more police in schools or more security apparatus. Instead, he points to measures like counselors, student mental health aids and behavioral threat assessments as the key efforts necessary to prevent violence in schools.
But even these efforts, he said, are just Band-Aids in the end.
“Our failure to address that has meant that we’ve had to create a kind of alternative ecosystem to try and address that problem,” Densley said. “And that alternative reality is we need metal detectors, we need armed security. We need to arm teachers — people argue these types of things because we have so failed to address the real problem here.”