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2013 December 23 - 12:00 am

STUDENT SPOTLIGHT: Tragedy Affirms Battle Creek Woman’s Urge To Help Kids

AP Photo/The Enquirer, John Grap
Kari Dixon, who works as a lifeguard at the YMCA and attends Kellogg Community College, is photographed in Battle Creek, Mich. The Sandy Hook massacre last year made her reconsider, and then reaffirm, her commitment to earn a psychology degree and work with children.

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (AP) — On Dec. 14, 2012, a tragedy nearly 800 miles away forced Battle Creek’s Kari Dixon to re-evaluate her life plan.

That day, Dixon was 19 years old and halfway through her first year at Kellogg Community College, working toward a psychology degree. She wanted to work in schools. She wanted to work with kids.

Then a 20-year-old man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., and murdered 20 first-graders and six school staffers before killing himself. Like much of the nation, Dixon watched in horror as the story unfolded.

The massacre gnawed at Dixon’s heart not only for the unthinkable tragedy of it, but because it showed in hideous detail the burden she’d assume in her dream job. Responsible for the mental health of students, she could someday be called upon to help children grieve in a tragedy. She might someday be responsible for helping a youngster harboring violent thoughts.

“It really kind of scared me and it made me double-think if this was something I wanted to go into,” she said..

But, as the day wore on and the Sandy Hook story became clear, Dixon had a change of heart.

Now, the tragedy “makes me actually think I could help out a lot,” the woman, now 20, said last week. “To think that I could help, it made me more determined to do what I want to do.”

In the nearly a year since Sandy Hook, schools have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars beefing up security in their buildings. They’ve added cameras and locked doors. Some districts added film to school windows to slow bullets.

But looking at all of the mass shootings that have shattered this nation’s sense of peace the past several decades, the only thread as common as guns in each case was the mental illness of the shooter. Local educators said the offices of school psychologists are the real front lines in the battle against school violence.

In the wake of Sandy Hook and a rash of teen suicides related to bullying that preceded that tragedy, several local educators underwent training in the ways to spot trouble in students and ways to address it. Becky Rocho, assistant superintendent for general services and legislation at the Calhoun Intermediate School District, said her district and other schools work closely with mental health provider Summit Pointe, referring students there whenever it seems necessary.

But Rocho said that, despite post-Sandy Hook calls for new mental health spending, many schools have had to cut back on paraprofessionals and interventionists who are trained to work with troubled kids. She said Congress’ forced budget-slashing known as “sequester” further hurt such programs.

Such is the world into which Dixon wants to wade. Deeply.

Today, the 20-year-old is a lifeguard at the Battle Creek YMCA (where she works with young swimmers) and in her last year of classes at KCC. She hopes to transfer to a university in North Carolina.

“I’ve always done really well with kids,” Dixon said. “I’ve just been able to respond to them better.”

She said nobody in her family is a psychologist, but her grandparents pushed her toward that study.

“Just their intuition, I guess,” Dixon said.

Her grandfather had taken some psychology courses in college and was interested in the way kids’ minds work, the way they develop. She became interested, too.

Dixon grew up in Indiana, then lived in Blue Springs, Mo., before her family moved to Battle Creek for jobs at Kellogg Co. She started her junior year at Pennfield High School and graduated there.

In her time spent at three different high schools, she said she’s seen bullying and fights and troubled kids.

Though she said that, “when people get bullied in high school, they don’t really want to talk about it,” she thinks the stigma around mental health is lifting among today’s young people. Especially in the past couple of years, she said she’s seen her peers speaking more openly about such issues.

Among the most common issues she sees young people facing today: “Parental issues, I guess, things that go on in the home . Most kids don’t feel comfortable in their own home.”

She said kids “just want to hear that their problem’s going to be dealt with.”

Locks, security cameras and bullet-slowing windows are important, the woman said, but she believes the work she hopes to do can have a bigger impact on making schools safer.

Someday, some kid thinking of doing the unthinkable might sit in her office. Someday, she might be able to say one thing, provide the right kind of support, to pull that kid back from the brink.

“It’s definitely scary to have all that weight on your shoulders,” Dixon said. “It’s just something
I have to strive to keep working on.”

Comments: ccweekblog | www.twitter.com/ccweek

Also from JUSTIN A. HINKLEY, Battle Creek Enquirer

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