“How do we prevent school shootings?” It’s the question everyone wants to know. The horrific images at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida sent shock waves through us all. There have been at seven school shootings in 2018 that have wounded or killed students in the United States.
For the past three decades I’ve studied childhood violence and wrote the “Proposal to End School Violence” (passed into California law: SB1667) based on what educators can do to boost campus safety and reduce the likelihood of a school shooting. While no guarantees, there are lessons to learn and they can help foil dozens of plots, save lives, and provide children with the safe schools they deserve.
Lesson 1: Implement a School Safety Plan
Ken Trump, President of National School Safety and Security Services, says over the last years he’s seen schools more willing to spend money on equipment -– things like metal detectors and security cameras. But he says more needs to be done when it comes to investing time into a safety plan.
“Most schools have written crisis plans and manuals sometimes dozens of pages thick, but a lot of those plans are sitting up on a shelf. We want to make sure that schools have crisis teams in place, they’re meeting, they’re familiar with and trained on their plan and they’re doing some drills.”
Educator Lesson: Educators are the first responders. So be prepared for the unthinkable. Have an emergency plan in place and train all staff and students in those operations. Review that plan now and coordinate with your local police.
Lesson 2. Recognize Kids Are Capable of Violent, Unimaginable Acts
There is no simple answer as to why kids become violent, but we do know that they are capable of violent acts. And they do not “snap” overnight. Instead, there is a slow, disturbing trajectory in which the child adopts a view that “violence” is acceptable. There is also a “risk build-up” factor involved in violence.
The shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida was 19-year-old Nicolas de Jesus Cruz, a former student of the school and identified as a threat to the school in previous years. And he had been expelled. “We were told last year that he wasn’t allowed on campus with a backpack on him,” math teacher, Jim Gard, told the Miami Herald.
Rarely does one event cause a child to be suicidal or homicidal, but.the steady increase of those risks (such as the bullying, the peer rejection, the bad home, the school failure, etc.). without anyone replacing the risk with something positive is what causes the final violent act.
John Douglas, the FBI profiler and author of Mindhunter who has studied serial killers for over 25 years states:
“criminals are more “made” than “born,” which means that somewhere along the line, someone who provided a profound negative influence could have provided a profound positive one instead.”
Parent and Educator Lesson: Get educated about student aggression and violence.
Lesson 3. Watch Out for Marginalized Boys
The U.S. Secret Service conducted one of the most thorough studies of school shooters over the past decades and determined that there is not a predictable profile. But there are important signs to tune into. Student school shooters are more likely to be male, caucasian and have easy access to weapons. But they are also more likely to be
- Withdrawn (pulls back from school activities)
- Isolated or rejected from peer
- Bullied repeatedly from a young age (there is a point when the bullied child flips roles and becomes the bully)
- From a troubled home
Peer and parent comments about the male Chardon High School shooter who killed three students and injured two, were classic: “He was from a troubled home.” “He was always by himself.” “We used to hang around together, and then he pulled back.” “I can’t believe he would do something like this! He was so quiet.”
“Marginalized” youth are typically not troublemakers, don’t participate in activities or attend school events and don’t seek help from a counselor. And because they don’t make those waves, they can be overlooked. One caring adult can make a difference on a student’s life.
Make a list of students who are socially isolated, withdrawn, victimized by peers, or “affect hungry.”
Assign staff members to connect with those students daily even if it’s to give a smile or say a quick, “hello.”
Boost adult visibility in school cafeterias, lockers or gyms and look for loners or students who appear marginalized and Watch out for “who isn’t there” at school events and activities.
Lesson 4. Pay Attention to Mental Health
Violence is learned, but also preventable. Early intervention must be the goal and school mental health services must be a priority to an effective school safety plan.
“Though few shooters had been diagnosed with a mental illness, but more than half had a history of feeling extremely depressed or desperate,” reported Bill Dedman from the Chicago Sun-Time. “About three-fourths either threatened to kill themselves, made suicidal gestures or tried to kill themselves before the attack.”
Several school students were clearly mentally disturbed and later diagnosed as sociopaths. Jonathan Kellerman’s, Savage Spawn, is a must read as is Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them by James Garbarino.
In addition, there are warnings of a child who may become violent to himself or others. Michael G. Conner, Psy.D., a medical psychologist offers signs:
Feelings and behavior are easily influenced by peers: Victimized or treated badly by peers; Alcohol or other drug use; Dwells on experiences of rejection, on injustices or unrealistic fears; Reacts to disappointments, criticisms or teasing with extreme and intense anger, blame or a desire for revenge; Increasing anger, aggression, and destructive behavior; Associates with children known to be involved with morbid, destructive or violent behavior or fantasy; Preoccupation or interest in destructive or violent behavior; Has been cruel or violent towards pets or other animals; Fascinated interest or an obsession with weapons or potential weapons; Depicts violent or destructive behaviors in artistic or other creative expressions.
Hold staff trainings on depression signs in youth. Some districts distribute bookmarks listing those warnings to educators.
Discuss amongst your staff kids who you know may be hurting and report your concerns to counselors and to the child’s parents.
Educate parents in teen depression signs.
Lesson 5. Provide Reporting Options
“I told everyone what I was going to do,” said Evan Ramsey. Evan, age 16, shot and killed his school principal and another student in Bethel Alaska. His friends kept quiet.
Seventy-five percent of teens contemplating suicide or homicide tell their plans, and are far more likely to report to a peer. A special report to the Chicago Sun-Times found that in more than three-fourths of school shootings the attacker told someone about his interest in mounting an attack at school. And in more than half of the incidents, the attacker told more than one person.
Those findings offer hope.
If shooters plan and tell, there is time to intervene. Students must be provided with several types of reporting options including: anonymous reporting strategies (websites, text, phone lines and report boxes), designated teachers or counselors, and peer mentors.
Make sure your school has a designated website and/or phone hot line where students can report threats and teach them how to use those options.
Provide “locked” report boxes in key locations around the school campus where students can post concern and encourage students their use.
Identify students with social clout and train them to be Peer Mentors to have students report to.
Lesson 6. Break the Code of Silence
Many students fear “telling” could make a situation worse or that they will lose social status and be seen as a “snitch” by peers. Teach student these key distinctions:
“Reporting is when you are trying to keep a peer out of trouble or harms way. Snitching is when you are trying to get a peer in trouble.”
Stress that reporting could be life saving and it is “always better to be safe than sorry.”
More students now report threats online and their actions have thwarted peer suicides and school shootings because they were trained in that important distinction. But you must take their reports seriously. Teen focus groups often tell me that peers don’t utilize their school reporting options because the staff doesn’t take their statements seriously or act on them.
Designate an administrator to collect reports from the report box when students are changing classes and can see the adult retrieving them. Then monitor those findings, watch for patterns and act on them.
Invite local law enforcement officers to an assembly to discuss how reporting can save lives and stress “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Lesson 7. Build Caring and Inclusive School Climate
A 2002 report by the United States Secret Service, who studied thirty-seven school shootings on American campuses, confirmed that bullying is a key factor in many shootings. Their report stated:
Almost three-quarters of the attackers felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others prior to the incident. In several cases, individual attackers had experienced bullying and harassment that was long-standing and severe. In some of these cases the experience of being bullied seemed to have a significant impact on the attacker and appeared to have been a factor in his decision to mount an attack at the school. In one case, the attacker’s schoolmates described the attacker as “the kid everyone teased.”
According to Everytown Research, a nonprofit that tracks shootings and other incidents related to gun safety near U.S. schools, there have been at least 17 other incidents involving a gun fired on or near U.S. campuses in 2018.