Too Close for Comfort 

Student “hit list” in Hamilton underscores mental health needs of kids

Of all the clichés that became obsolete with the new millennium, none has been driven into retirement with more deadly force than the expression, “It could never happen here.”

Only a week after the most deadly school shooting since Columbine took the lives of two and injured 13 others in Santee, Calif., parents, teachers and students in Hamilton were reminded that they, too, are not immune to the potential for school violence or the mental health crisis that is gripping the nation’s youth.

On March 7, school administrators were tipped off by a community member that 18-year-old Randy King, a junior at Hamilton High School, had drawn up a “hit list” of more than 20 students, teachers and others whom he may have intended to harm. According to Hamilton High School Principal Kevin Conwell, King was immediately confronted by him and a school resource officer and admitted to having drawn up the list. King was then escorted to his home by police, where the list was found.

No weapons or written plans for the attacks were found at school or in King’s possession, Conwell said.

King was later taken into protective custody, evaluated by a mental health professional and kept overnight at a nearby hospital, Conwell said. The following day, he was brought before District Court Judge Jeffrey Langton and in a closed hearing, it was determined that he could potentially pose a threat to himself and others and was committed to an undisclosed location for further evaluation and treatment.

No criminal charges have been filed against King. For privacy reasons, all proceedings relating to his case have been sealed by the court. However, this was not King’s first encounter with the criminal justice system. In December, King was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault for twisting his mother’s wrist and stabbing a knife into a doorjamb. Said one clerk in the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office who is familiar with the case, “This boy really needs some help. My prayers go out to him and his family.”

Immediate neighbors of the family in Hamilton said they either didn’t know King or refused to comment on last week’s incident. However, one person who knows the family did say that King’s father died just before Christmas last year and that King had taken his father’s death quite hard.

In an effort to quash rumors and help community members cope with the news, school administrators held a meeting at Hamilton High School last Friday for the teachers, students and the parents of those whose names were on the list. According to one parent who attended that meeting, they were strongly urged to not discuss this incident with the media.

One parent whose child was on the list did say, however, that, “It’s about time the media, whether it’s radio, print or TV, get their act together and not sensationalize these things. All it does is trigger these kids and push them over the edge. They finally get the attention they crave, even if it’s the wrong kind of attention.”

Students at Hamilton High School accepted the news with mixed responses, from tears to shrugs of indifference. One girl who claimed she has been friends with King for years said, “He’s a really decent kid once you get to know him.”

Like many of the students implicated in incidents of this kind nationwide, King was described by several of his classmates as something of a loner and someone who got bullied often over the years. One junior at Hamilton High who’s known King since the first grade said, “Eleven years of getting picked on can really piss you off. I kind of feel sorry for him.”

While parents, teachers and school administrators search for answers to explain the prevalence of such incidents, some mental health professionals point to a system that for years has neglected the mental health needs of young people.

In report released in January, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher wrote that “the nation is facing a public crisis in mental health for children and adolescents,” with one in 10 suffering from a mental illness severe enough to cause some level of impairment. Yet in any given year, it is estimated that one in five of these children will never be identified or receive treatment.

The causes are varied, according to Satcher, from the social stigma attached to mental illness to the lack of a basic mental health infrastructure—either for children or adults—in this country. In Montana, the problem was exacerbated by four years of a failed managed care system that fragmented juvenile mental health services and now can’t decide whether to treat mentally ill children as patients or criminals.

With the state’s mental health budget already overspent by about $20 million, many experts in the mental health field say that Montana can ignore the mental health needs of its young people at its own peril.

“Randy’s a good kid. The system just let him down,” said one family friend, who asked not to be identified. “And maybe we’re partly to blame for turning a blind eye to it.”

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