With the recent school shooting in Newton, CT, people are all searching for ways to make sense of this horrific tragedy. One of the most common ways for people to do this is to fantasize how they might have stopped it or offer up gut-based solutions to prevent the next one. The problem with these types of solutions is that they are meant to make the problem go far enough away so you don’t have to deal with it, but this doesn’t mean they actually solve the problem. Any real solution requires in depth study an analysis, and in the very understandable and very human emotional state we are all in right now, few of us are ready to take the steps to rationally solve the problem.
Luckily, most of the work has already been done for us.
There is a sad reality that these shootings have been happening for decades. The only silver lining is that with each tragedy, we have had experts determined to figuring out real solutions to this dire problems. What follows is drawn from studies carried out on how to prevent school shootings done by the experts.
1) You need prevention, not reaction
Because these attacks are premeditated, and because the kids committing them spend 6-8 hours a day in the building they plan to assault, they have the time to observe all the security of the school plot around them. And if you wait for the child to be on the attack, it’s already too late.(1)
Instead we need to keep our kids from turning into killers in the first place, and we have information on how to do that.
2) Take care of the roots of the child’s need to kill
Children who commit acts of mass murder do have some common experiences. They commonly feel bullied or prosecuted, report suicidal thoughts and behaviors, and show signs of depression. (2) These are warning signs for a lot of at risk kids, and we need to be watching for them anyway. We have already been starting to address bullying in schools, and we have suicide awareness campaigns. However, these campaigns are not as supported as they should be, and we need to change this. But the pay-off is that this extra level of care also helps to prevent children from becoming murderers.
Children who commit acts of violence also show an increasing interest in violent media, and have difficulty dealing with failure and loss (2). Identifying these at risk kids, teaching them alternative coping skills and conflict resolution strategies will buffer against them becoming violent
3) Learn to recognize and encourage the reporting of any plans to commit violence
In most of the school shootings, at least one other person knew the attack was going to occur. In some of these cases, the other kids even dared or egged on the would be attacked to commit the act. In addition, the child’s behavior was causing concern for adults in the environment, such as expressing belief that homicide and suicide were ways of solving personal problems, attempts to access weapons, or having fantasies of murdering people that were reported well in advance of their attacks (2). They also may idolize murderers and and others who commit atrocities, and will often have an online presence where they openly discuss their violent preoccupations. (3) But people didn’t act on these concerns and make sure the child got positive interventions. Sadly, many times the only response a child might get is suspension, giving them the time and resentment to actually develop their plans instead of help.
4) Encourage children to report, and not ignore, warnings of potential attacks
In most of the attacks, other students were in some way aware of the impending attacks. They did not report the attacks for a variety of reasons, including disbelief, underestimating the immediacy of the threat, observation of adults ignoring the information/signs, and social messages like “mind your own business,” or “don’t be a tattle-tale.” Learning to make children comfortable with reporting important information to adults can give you important information needed to prevent attacks (4), but this requires teaching an ethic that focuses on being involved in the lives and pain of others, and realizing that we are responsible for allowing the problems we see to continue unchallenged.
5) Get serious about mental health
Even though having mental illness does not make you more violent (5) school shooters show signs of severe depression, narcissism, and suicidal ideation (2). But it is difficult to identify and treat people because mental health is not given the same priority when it comes to social acceptance and treatment funding (6). We can treat depression, we can treat suicidality, and we can treat violent tendencies, but we need to identify people at risk and provide the treatment they need. The blocks to doing so are social and political, and therefor changeable.
6) We need to really look at how the messages we send our children contributes to all the above issues
Children learn from watching adults. Why do they see violence as a solution? We pump them with violence in every aspect of our media, from movies to TV to video games, to sports. Rarely do we discuss deescalation and conflict resolution in our society. Why do they not report when they hear of a student getting ready to attack a school? look at how adults tell them to mind their own business, or otherwise dismiss them. Why do they egg on the violence? Look at how adults glorify it, and listen to how they cheer it in media. Why do they avoid seeking help? Look how we treat bullying victims and the mentally ill among us as “weak” or “broken.” What we ignore in each other, we ignore in our kids, and what we do to each other we teach our kids to do to each other.
This is what it takes to keep our kids safe. We don’t need armed teachers, we don’t need metal detectors and strip searches. We just need to listen, be in tune with the distress of the children around us, to teach our children to speak up, and to be serious about helping the suffering of others. We need to take care of and heal our children before they become killers, not build contingency plans to kill them back after a few others are murdered. And we know how to do that, we just need to do it.
Many of the resources used in this article (and listed below) were found at Schoolshooters.info
(1) Ten Lessons Learned from School Shootings and Foiled Attacks
This is an excerpt from Chapter 8, “What Can Be Done to Prevent School Shootings,” in Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters.
(2) The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States
This document from 2002 is the result of collaboration between the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education.
(3)School Shootings: The Warning Signs
This article was published in the winter–spring 2012 edition of Forensic Digest. It is reprinted with the permission of Forensic Digest.
(4) Prior Knowledge of Potential School-Based Violence: Information Students Learn May Prevent a Targeted Attack
This is another collaboration between the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education. The focus of the 2008 study was investigating students with prior knowledge of impending school attacks.