Sandra Lewandowski spent a decade warning about school security concerns stemming from a mental health crisis – and then a deadly shooting outside her school.
RICHFIELD, MN – A small memorial still stands outside the front entrance of District 287 South Education Center in Richfield, four months after the fatal student shooting.
“It feels as if a year has not materialized,” said Sandra Lewandowski, superintendent of District 287. “This is clearly not the way any leader would want to leave.”
After 50 years in education, and 16 years in command of District 287, Lewandowski imagined her retirement year differently.
“It’s the worst nightmare ever,” she said. A young man died in front of the school.
To make matters worse, the fatal shooting on February 1 was a nightmare she saw coming. Long before the pandemic increased public awareness of the mental health crisis of young people, Lewandowski was sounding the alarm about what she was seeing.
Intermediate District 287 has long provided specialized educational services to 11 metropolitan areas. Schools and classes provide everything from vocational and technical training to intensive special education and alternative education.
In the past decade, Lewandowski says, the area has taken in children with increasingly challenging behavioral problems and mental health needs.
“It’s important to understand that students coming through our doors are in and out of residential treatment — or in and out of emergency rooms — all the time,” she said. “It’s a rare week that we don’t send kids to emergency rooms. To be very specific, that can include suicidal ideation, it can have killer tendencies, and they go back to school without being served. What you have here, which is happening in our area, is that we We give to children who are not served by others.
“I just looked through my file this morning; my first documented letter to the Governor was to Governor Dayton in 2013, expressing this grave concern. Most of my testimony—and most of my documentation to policymakers—often ends with the words, ‘I look like today because, God forbid, Something terrible is happening, I don’t want to look back and say I didn’t tell anyone.”
Even after something terrible happened this year, Lewandowski continued to speak up.
In May, she testified at the Capitol in support of an education bill, which would provide $15 million in additional mental health support for the type of special education programs District 287 provides.
“I can tell you, all of the students involved in the shooting have needs that have not been met for many years,” Lewandowski said during the May 9 legislative hearing. “I hope no other school district in Minnesota will experience a similar tragedy, but I believe we are a canary in the coal mine. If we don’t provide children with the trauma response and mental health services they desperately need, there will be even more tragic consequences.”
Despite her call, the session ended without agreement.
“I remember driving away from the Capitol thinking, ‘If that doesn’t force me to take action, what would it be?”‘ Lewandowski said. “I hope there will be a special session and I hope there will be a realization that there is an urgent need. The numbers are as high as 40-50% of our children in this case now have mental health issues. If this is a flood or it is a forest fire, we will rush to help.”
Instead, images of children rushing out of schools continue to depict school shootings, such as the one that just unfolded in Texas.
Sandy says school leaders across the country will continue to take the limited steps they can provide themselves.
“We will install a weapons detection system during the summer,” she said. “We’re also focusing on trauma response strategies, interracial equity action, and other things backed by research.”
But she says those larger efforts cannot be achieved without support.
Lewandowski: “My immediate question to policy makers is: What are You are Am I going to help solve this now? “
Kent Erdal: “You’re about to walk away from this job. You don’t seem to be walking away from this problem.”
Lewandowski: “Sure, I will do anything I can in my retirement to further this cause.”
Ardal: “You can’t just get away.”
Lewandowski: “That’s right. I’ll always be there.”
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