WASHINGTON – Linda Meade may be the last person standing between a Maryland school system and the next Santana High School-style teen shooter.
But for the school psychologist, it’s all in a day’s work.
A violence assessor for Baltimore County Schools, Meade said she sees the “creme de la creme” — kids deemed too violent to return to school without her evaluation. Meade gets students in all grades, from elementary to high school, who have been expelled for the most grievous offenses — those of a “vicious” nature, according to one school official.
That official said there is no doubt Meade helps prevent the kind of spree that left two dead and 13 injured in Santee, Calif., recently.
“Absolutely, without a doubt, having her with us gives us an edge,” said Barry Thomas, one of five county school officials who can make referrals to Meade.
“She can tell us clinically what makes the kids tick. Was it an isolated event or was it a pattern that’s likely to continue?” said Thomas. “We know the policies and the procedures, but we don’t know every Freudian thing coming down the road.”
Meade said she saw about 85 students last school year and has seen more than 30 so far this year. She uses a combination of tools — including testing, interviews and her own gut feelings — to determine the best placement for a student who has been referred to her.
Yet she is the first to admit her job is as much an art as a science.
“The prediction of violence is not good,” she said.
“I’m a good guesser, because I’ve been seeing people for a long time,” she said. “You get hunches about what they’re hiding and what the implications are of what they’re saying.”
But that method is still superior to the old way: Before Meade’s position was created several years ago, officials relied on much less data to make placement decisions. After an episode of violence, a student might be placed in an alternative school without as thorough an assessment.
“Then they showed their true colors, so the little red flag went up that we do need a safety protocol to follow up with further assessments,” Thomas said.
Meade said there are certain factors she always looks for during her assessments: remorse, premeditation, history of violence, access to weapons and substance abuse, among others.
“One red flag to me, and this is a biggie, is if the family endorses the behavior,” she said. “For those kids, violent behavior is the accepted family business, so they’re coming to the school and they have no sense that they have a responsibility to be good citizens. . .they have no regard for the rights and feelings of others.”
Meade said she has seen some kids who really worried her, such as the teen-age boy who hid under a staircase for his victim and then stabbed him repeatedly. But most are not that vicious. Her typical client is a kid who shoved a teacher while battling another student.
“Most of these kids are quite likeable,” she said.
Meade said she saw a 7-year-old girl last week, for example, who was so cute “she could have been on television.” Despite the parade of students she sees every year, she said she still gets upset when she is faced with an emotionally disturbed student who the system has missed.
“I get upset about those kids and I want to get them appropriate treatment,” Meade said.
Still, she takes precautions. She never lets a student sit between her and the office door and children she is especially worried about must leave backpacks and jackets outside. Meade also said she always has an adult, usually the child’s parent, with her.
“I don’t want anybody saying. . .that I hit their kid, molested their kid, cursed their kid, threatened their kid,” she said.
She said she often finds herself empathizing with the parents, who may still be leery from their own bad school experiences and now have to deal with their children’s problems.
But Meade, who peppers her speech with flip references to “the little darlings,” says she loves her job. She calls it the best job she has ever had in the school system for which she has worked off and on since 1979.
“I see it as a helping role. . .I see it as solving problems,” she said. “As a result of seeing me, they’re going to move on with their education, so I feel good about it in that way.”
Meade has made the right calls so far about the students she has evaluated. But she says her fingers are crossed “because you just never know.”
“I’ve been evaluating people for a long time,” she said. “So far nothing horrible has happened with anyone I’ve sent back to school.”