‘Our youngest we lost was nine.’ Austin ISD police home in on mental health

Save Our Students

AUSTIN (KXAN) — We first met Officer Wayne Sneed in a courtyard outside the Austin Independent School District’s downtown headquarters. The plan was to ride along with him for a few hours to see what a typical day is like.

At 6’4” and 240 lbs., the 58-year-old is built like a Navy SEAL, an intimidating presence. Yet a flash of his smile and calm demeanor have a way of quickly putting people at ease.

Austin ISD Police Officer Wayne Sneed talks with a dispatcher.

My photographer and I were unloading our gear and in the process of introducing ourselves when a look of concern came over Sneed’s face.

He’d just heard the dispatcher talk into his earpiece, sending him to a call at south Austin’s Mendez Middle School.

It was urgent. 

The three of us hustled to his unmarked black SUV, admittedly slower than he would have liked, threw our cameras and microphones inside and took off. 

“We got a parent, possibly parent with children on campus at Mendez Middle school who is threatening to cut her wrist,” Sneed said, while stepping on the gas and racing down 5th Street toward Interstate 35.

Over the scanner, a dispatcher asked, “Do we need to place the school on lockdown or hold?”

Sneed turned on his sirens.

“They’ll do it on a lockout because, since she’s got a weapon, she’s outside the school, just want to make sure that no students get endangered by her actions,” he explained.

Officer Wayne Sneed and Officer Daniel Magallanes talk with a suicidal woman (KXAN Photo/Tom Miller)

As the district’s police mental health supervisor, it’s his job to respond to this type of call. In this case, a suicidal parent was outside the school.

“The whole idea is to make sure that no one else gets hurt and to try to deescalate her from the state that she’s in,” he said. “Find something that she feels is worth living for, like her kids.”

By the time we arrived, other officers had already stabilized the situation in the parking lot after chasing the distraught mother around campus. 

Sneed slowly walked over, introduced himself, and asked the woman, “Can you give me a little bit of an idea of what’s going on today?”

The woman was receptive and explained her struggle being a single parent of two teenagers.

“How is that making you feel today?” Sneed asked.

“It is stressful,” replied the woman, with a tone of exhaustion and exasperation in her voice.

It’s here that Sneed starts digging deeper, hoping to determine what triggered the crisis.

“Is there any history on your side, or maybe her dad’s side, with mental health that you’re aware of?” he asked.

The woman initially responded no, as if by default.

However, she immediately corrected herself, and shared her sister has bipolar disorder.

The goal for Sneed is to slowly build trust as he walks the verbal tight rope holding together these delicate conversations with parents, and, more often, kids. 

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Connecting with those he serves

Later, in the shadow of a district office building, Sneed sat down on a bench in the same courtyard where we originally met him and reflected back on his seven years with the district. 

“This is the reason I got into police work, 37 years ago,” Sneed said. “To do exactly what I do every day.”

In addition to his role as a supervisor, Sneed is also one of just two trained crisis intervention officers. 

It’s a robust role. 

When he isn’t dealing with a mental health emergency, you may find him at the State Capitol, where last year he testified in favor of creating a network of mental health research centers at Texas college campuses. 

There, he presented gutwrenching statistics.

During the 2017-2018 school year at Austin ISD, a district with roughly 80,000 students, 878 reported thinking about suicide, 378 attempted suicide, there were more than 4,815 intensive counseling sessions, and six students ended their own lives.

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“Our youngest we lost was nine,” Sneed said. “Very devastating.”

One clear advantage he has over most officers trying to build rapport is that these difficulties were once his own.

“(My family was) on food stamps and Medicaid and things along those lines growing up, so I relate in a lot of ways to the families that I deal with on a daily basis, because I was that family,” he said.

Sneed’s 4th-grade class photo (Courtesy Wayne Sneed)

As a kid, Sneed struggled in school early on, often distracted by an unstable home life. Yet with the dedicated mentorship of his teachers, he began to excel, becoming a star student and athlete by middle school. After playing basketball at Texas State, he joined the San Marcos Police Department. 

In his early years on the force, Sneed often ended up at the local middle school where he kept crossing paths with the same student.

“Every time I went to the school, this particular student was in the office, and he’s 11 years old, he’s a black male. I was 11 years old, black male, in the office,” Sneed said.

Sneed took an interest in him, describing their relationship as an “unofficial mentorship.”

In time, the boy told Sneed he’d lost both his parents, his medically-frail grandparents were taking care of him, and he was angry about it.

“I got the impression that this young man was going through the same thing that I had gone through, so we sat and we would talk … just because I related to him,” Sneed said.

Sneed working as a K9 officer c. 1988 (Courtesy Wayne Sneed)

Sneed’s assignments eventually started bringing him to the school less and less, and the two lost touch.

Then, seven years later, a cruel twist of fate brought them together again.

In January 1988, Sneed responded to a burglary at a mobile home.

The homeowner told him she had multiple weapons inside, including a loaded, sawed-off shotgun.

After clearing most of the house, Sneed had only room left to go — the bathroom. When he entered and pulled back the shower curtain, his instincts and training took over.

He fired. 

There was the boy, then a man, he’d been trying to help, dying before him in a pool of blood.

For more than two weeks, Sneed said he didn’t leave his home, overcome and devastated by the shooting.

“In the back of my mind, I was hoping that my support for him and my encouragement, that he could do the same thing that I did,” Sneed said. “Then, obviously, to have such a devastating end to our relationship, coming almost full circle from where we started, it was impactful.”

Sneed said the tragic incident motivated him to try even harder helping kids turn their lives around.

“If I can help one person, out of the thousands that I encounter, it’s a success for me,” he said.

Expanding the role

While driving to Austin Oaks Hospital, one of several mental health facilities the district partners with, Sneed explained he sometimes needs to help the parents before he can help the kids.

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Officer Wayne Sneed and KXAN Reporter Tom Miller heading to Austin Oaks Hospital (KXAN Photo)

He said parents often struggle to accept their child is dealing with a mental health issue or illness.

The proof is in the numbers. In October 2017 alone, the district had 39 families who went into a psychiatric hospital and removed their kids against medical advice.

“If we were talking about heart or lungs, or kidneys, parents would never ever do that,” Sneed said. “We treat the brain worse than any other organ in the body.”

As a police officer, Sneed is in the unique position, along with judges, of being able to place someone in a mental health hospital against their — or, in most AISD cases, their parent’s — will.

It’s a responsibility he takes seriously, adding he would always rather try to convince a parent that this decision is in their own best interest, rather than force it on them.

The district believes Sneed’s role has been such a success, it brought on its second crisis intervention officer last year. It’s a trend Police Chief Ashley Gonzalez said will only grow.

“We’ll be going to a third one pretty soon as well,” Gonzalez said. “We’re seeing the amount, the number of cases, number of mental health cases are escalating.”

The role of the mental health officer fits into a larger system focused intensely on the student’s well being, known as social-emotional learning.

The role of the mental health officer fits into a larger system focused intensely on the student’s wellbeing known as “social emotional learning.” At the 53 Austin ISD seed campuses where leaders are placing a stronger emphasis on emotional control and decision-making abilities, student test scores increased 11 percent.

At the district’s 53 seed campuses, where it’s placing a stronger emphasis on emotional control and decision-making abilities… test scores increased 11 percent.

The impact Sneed is making is tough to measure, but the district believes the recent decreased suicide rate among its students is promising. During the 2017-2018 school year, six students killed themselves. Last year, there was none.

In the case of the suicidal mother at Mendez Middle School, Sneed was able to help connect her with a counselor from Integral Care, a Travis County mental health center.

The counselor arrived right there on campus within 15 minutes and immediately began helping the woman.

“This is a blessing, I see it like a destiny, that I’m able to give back,” Sneed said.

If you or someone you know is experiencing emotional distress or suicidal crisis, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free, 24/7 confidential service you can call at 800-273-8255. There is also a free text-message service that offers 24/7 support for those in crisis and can be reached by texting 741-741. If it’s an emergency, please dial 911. Find resources on the Save Our Students Support and Outreach page.

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