After shooting near Highlands Elementary, some ask if mental health responder would have helped

JOHNSON COUNTY, Kan. -- As the suspect appeared in court Monday, last week's shootout with police outside a Shawnee Mission elementary school has some wondering if a mental health co-responder would have made a difference.

Shots were fired Friday afternoon as school was letting out at Highlands Elementary in Mission. Dylan Ruffin, 26, initially shot toward the school, striking a van in the parking lot and a sign out front, before exchanging gunfire with police at a home across the street.

Ruffin was charged Saturday with three counts of aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer and one count of criminal discharge of a firearm at a dwelling or structure. He appeared in a Johnson County courtroom through video conference in a wheelchair after police shot him in the leg during that shootout.

According to the Johnson County Mental Health Center, in many situations, mental health co-responders can help in emergency situations. But when a scene isn't secure, police have to focus on everyone's safety.

"Typically what you would see is the police officers would arrive at the scene, secure the scene, and then the co-responder would come in to evaluate the individual, to talk with the individual, and look at what options might be available to them," said Tim DeWeese, the JoCo center's director.

However, he said Friday's situation escalated too quickly to evaluate.

"It's hard for me to project, but what I can say is, when we've been able to have secure scenes and for CIT trained officer as well as a co-responder work together with the individual, we have been able to provide services immediately to those individuals," DeWeese said.

DeWeese said it's hard to know what may have caused Ruffin to make the decision to allegedly discharge a gun.

"People that commit violent crime -- we're always looking for a reason why that might happen, and of course, mental illness may be a part of that, but I think we have to be careful about making that jump," he said.

Children released from Highland saw much of the chaos. DeWeese said kids generally will deal with trauma for a few weeks after the incident.

"If symptoms or problems continue to occur beyond that, then parents need to help their youngsters and reach out to professional help," DeWeese said.

Ruffin's being held on a $500,000 cash bond. If released, court documents say he would need to undergo a mental health evaluation first. He's expected back in court on March 14.

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