In Addition to Thoughts and Prayers: Actions to Address School Shootings

Empty School Hallway

The statistics on school shootings in the United States are overwhelming. There have been 17 shootings on school grounds in 2018 alone; 8 of these being intentional and during school hours . In Florida, this week’s school shooting left 17 dead and 5 in intensive care.

I am not a safety expert, I’m a school and developmental psychologist and work in schools most days. I am also a mom and want my kids to be safe. I also respect the Second Amendment and enjoy an occasional outing to the gun range. If it helps any, I consider myself an Independent and have voted for policies and politicians from both parties.

I’ve been thinking about the answers to school shootings off and on since grad school, since Columbine. It’s exhausting that as a country we continue to argue about the causes of the problem and have yet to move toward solutions in a meaningful way.

Anyone who argues one side, “it’s all a gun problem,” or “it’s all about mental health,” or worse, “there are no laws that could have helped,” is closing down the discussion and the possibility of finding reasoned decisions and solutions. It is a hugely complex and grave issue that deserves solutions from every angle.

Here is a starter list of several solutions. By no means is this meant to be an exhaustive list. My hope is we are at the beginning of real change on this issue and recognize there will be so many additional avenues towards a reduction of the violence.

Hint: If you are offended by the idea that part of the answer is gun regulation, you can skip the first section. It’s an important section as I think it’s at least half of the answer but there are several other sections for you including ideas on mental health, threat assessment and target hardening.

Gun Regulation

Common Sense Gun Regulation is at least considering rigorous universal background checks, blocking purchases for people deemed mentally ill (those guilty of domestic violence, and those on the no-fly list, but that’s a different article), higher age requirements, limits on the number of bullets in a clip and a ban on automatic and semi-automatic (particularly the AR 15) weapons. If not a ban on semi-automatics, much more rigorous checks and training.

Specific to school shootings, Dr. Matt Kuhn, a school district administrator in Colorado, suggests that students expelled from high school for violent behaviors also be added to the no-buy list through 21 years old. This would also give a beneficial layer of communication between the high schools and law enforcement agencies.

We might look to other countries. In the mid 1990s, Australia’s response to mass shootings included requiring a license for every gun owner, a registration for every gun, a ban on automatic weapons, and limits on clips. They also set up a gun buy back and destroyed more than a million guns. The USNLM-NIH reports that states with high rates of gun ownership have equally high rates of gun related homicides. Fewer guns, fewer homicides. Or we could follow Switzerland’s approach with required permits, background and mental illness checks, a limit of three weapons per person. They credit their low rates of gun violence to a culture of responsibility in ownership, gun safety and well enforced laws.

These other countries have similar issues with mental illness, teenagers who play violent video games and permissive parenting yet they don’t have the number of mass shootings. The one thing that differentiates us from them is the number of guns and the loose regulations for purchase and ownership. This is a uniquely American problem and the research, the numbers, point to gun control as the main answer. Please though, read on, there are several other answers that will save lives.

To this whole section, I would add holding gun owning parents responsible if their children injure or kill others with their guns.

All this said, clear debate and solid decision making relies on good data. Since a 1996 Congressional budget amendment, the US Center for Disease Control which studies other causes of death including drowning and  car accidents have been unable to effectively study gun violence. There is hope in that Trump’s newly appointed Secretary of Health and Human Services stated clear support for gun violence research moving forward. Fully funding this area of research would enable us to achieve better policies.

If you need direction to how to have a voice in this debate, you might consider joining a group in your area:

Mental Illness/Mental Health

While fewer than 5% of gun related homicides are committed by people diagnosed with a mental illness, the USNLM-NIH reports up to 60% of US mass shooters (not limited to schools) displayed symptoms including “acute paranoia, delusions and depression” before their crime. They continue that mental health concerns are likely higher for mass shooters than those who commit other gun violence.

Recognizing and treating mental illness in our young people takes parents who are in tune, open to evaluations and able to afford care. It is often time consumming and costly to accurately diagnose and treat conditions. It is also paying attention over the years of childhood to changes in symptoms requiring changes in treatment plans.

Often it is the school bringing a student’s mental health concerns to their parents’ attention. Most public schools have guidance counselors, school psychologists and social workers. While their caseloads are heavy and their focus is supporting education, they, and teachers, are in a unique position to observe students’ mental health and related behaviors.

For this to all work, we need fully funded schools with effective student services and support programs. We need a robust health care system with insurance for all that covers an integrated approach to mental health. We also need parents who will pick up the information and effectively address it over time. This may include individual and group counseling, medication, cognitive behavioral therapy or social skills groups. Not too much to ask, right? Kidding aside, the only way for mental health services to be available for all is if we make their funding a priority.

More manageable places to start would be a month on related mental health issues and a week on threat assessment (below) built in to every 9th and 10th graders health class and similar yearly staff training. Providing related articles and workshops for parents would add consistency between settings. A yearly mental health screening for each student (a few self-report forms to fill out) each year in high school. An additional social worker per high school to coordinate related services with parents and the community. I see the school social worker as a central player in this discussion.

Dr. Peter Langman, an expert on school shootings and author of School Shooters: Understanding High School, College and Adult Perpetrators and the website School Shooters.info, breaks school shooters in to three common categories. Psychotic students may have delusional disorders, and may be diagnosed with schizophrenia or similar level of mental illness. Psychopathic students may be narcissistic or have related personality disorders, they may be characterized by a lack of empathy, conscience or remorse. Traumatized students may have suffered abuse, bullying, family loss or come from a dysfunctional home. Of these categories, only psychotic students have a high likelihood of being formally diagnosed with a mental illness by high school. More likely students from all three categories would be on the radar of a school social worker.

Under the mental health umbrella is a student’s social skills and social connectedness. A word that comes up repeatedly when describing many school shooters is “loner.”  Peer status research methods are a quick, easy and inexpensive way to identify the students that other students would consider to be at-risk in this way.

Social support programs in schools, often offered by the guidance counselor or even those run by students such as We Dine Together, can reduce the number of students who feel isolated. Amy Zamboldi, a parent at Ridgewood High School in New Jersey, shared information about their Freshman FOCUS program. This program pairs each 9th grader with a trained and guidance counselor supervised 11th or 12th grader to promote academic and social success and an overall sense of community. Such programs can also help identify any student having difficulty with the transition. Researching and funding such programs is a proactive way to address related social concerns.

A very specific social skill related to reducing levels of aggression is empathy. While empathy remains an elusive skill to teach directly, we can definitely coach children on the component pieces of emotion language, understanding and perspective taking. If children are struggling in this area, parents may enroll them in social skills groups and actively coach them through related social exchange. Ideally, all of this starts long before high school.

Social connections and students’ mental health can also be improved through participation in extracurricular activities. In the last 25 years, Iceland has significantly reduced the rate of teenage delinquency, social stress and drug use through increased funding for all students to participate in organized sports, music, art, dance and other productive activities. Yes, they also added reasonable curfews and parenting support, but overall their approach is so simple and has been so effective. It is worth considering as a part of the answer here.

Threat Assessment

Threat assessment in this case is the process of identifying, evaluating and managing threats to student’s safety in our schools. The Safe School Initiative, which is a joint effort of the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Secret Service, is designed to guide schools and communities to improve their efforts and related outcomes.

These Departments state that identification and evaluation is much more about the facts of the case and behaviors of the student than any characteristics or traits. That often a student who poses a threat “did not threaten their targets directly,” but “did engage in pre-attack behaviors. This includes “leaking,” telling others or posting to social media, asking others for help or discussing details of the plan, or smaller threatening behaviors such as bringing ammunition to school. Other signals include a student who has difficulty coping with failures or loss, feelings of hopelessness, suicide attempts, feeling bullied or wronged by other students or the system, and access to, fascination with and prior use of weapons. With all of these behaviors, the push is for students, friends and siblings to follow a ‘See Something, Say Something’ approach.

As it is an increasingly common detail reported in a school shooter’s prior behavior, I would add copycat behavior and hero worship to this list. In many recent cases, these students have posted photos and video clips of themselves in similar poses to previous shooters. They describe admiring previous shooters as their inspiration or their God. They report studying earlier incidents to copy or out do previous events. ‘See Something, Say Something.’

They also suggest that schools should build a culture of respect for diversity and differences, support student’s social and emotional needs, bolster individual trusted relationships and paths for communication between students and school staff. In addition, they support the ongoing effort to reduce bullying in our schools. The School Safety Initiative goes on to outline a plan for evaluating threats and how to best manage an active situation.

Kathy Brown, CEM and Deputy Director at Union County Emergency Management Agency, suggests school systems should have a staff member trained to monitor students’ social media looking for trends in keyword, hashtag and geotlocation searches. She feels having a designated person within each system could go a long way towards identifying students in crisis.

Currently, only a handful of states require Threat Assessment Teams be in place in our K – 12 school systems and at public colleges. Requiring this practice and related funding from the federal level seems like a no-brainer, especially as this plan was developed by two federal departments.

Target Hardening

Target hardening is strengthening the security of a school in order to protect it in the case of an attack.

A good guy with a gun would be an incredibly well trained professional who is in the school solely for safety. My children’s high school has two assigned county police officers each day. I am happy to see them there. With as much as we pay in taxes, this step should be well within affordable.

The coordinated emergency planning school systems do with community law enforcement and other emergency services is also target hardening. This includes clear plans and paths for communication, staff training, lockdown drills, evacuation and family reunification plans.

Target hardening also includes safety products such as metal detectors, electronic door access with strict rules, bullet proof interior glass and interior door locks. Sadly, it also includes bullet proof backpacks and stocked first aid kits. Again, well within affordable.

VOTE

Vote for local, state and federal leaders who support common sense gun regulation, funding safety research at the CDC, a robust health insurance market, an integrated mental health system, and fully supported public schools and afternoon programs. Contact your politicians by phone, email, mail and through social media. Share your thoughts and ideas about all of these issues.

Media Guidelines

With the copycat influence, self reported body count goals and increased hero worship of previous shooters, Mother Jones magazine suggests six ways media outlets can help lessen future attacks. These are covered in their article How the Media Inspires Mass Shooters.

Additional Issues

Not to leave them out, violent video games and permissive or detached parenting are likely pieces to this puzzle. By all means, if these seem like main issues to you, start here. It is time to do something and lessening our children’s violent video content and improving the climate of parenting will make the country a better place too. You might work for age restrictions on violent content and first person shooter games. You might support community organizations that work with families and students considered at-risk. You might join a mentoring program like Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America. On a smaller scale, you might provide volunteer hours with your child’s school or scout troop.

Everything on this list seems common sense to me. The big actions to take are likely at the intersection of gun regulation and mental health. Rather than continuing to argue the causes, it is time to take action towards solutions.

Here is a blog post on How to Talk to Children About School Shootings by Age.

Here is a blog post for teachers on How to Answer Young Children’s Questions About Stressful Community Events 

 

 

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