Six Lessons from the Horrors of a School Shooting

School copyThe images of SWAT teams marching onto Chardon High School to rescue students from a student shooter sent shock waves through us all. The scene was déjà vu: Columbine—again—and our worse nightmare revisited. As of this post, three students have died at the hands of a student shooter.

The shooting occurred after a steady drop in school violence, which peaked in the 2003-04 school year. We’ve learned important lessons from those school shootings and the 49 students killed on our campuses. Those lessons have helped foil dozens of plots and save student lives. 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 important lessons to learn.

Lesson 1: Implement a School Safety Plan

Educators at Chardon High School had a safety plan in place and that plan appeared to be activated shortly after the shooter opened fire at around 7:30 am. Administrators notified the police, and the school went into full lockdown mode immediately. Email alerts went out to teachers and the school used a phone-alert system to tell parents about the shooting. Teachers turned off classroom lights, locked doors and covered windows. A school safety plan is essential.

Educator Lesson: Be prepared for the unthinkable. Have an emergency plan in place and train all staff in the operations of that safety plan. Review that plan now. Are all the pieces in place?

Lesson 2: Recognize Kids Are Capable of Violent, Unimaginable Acts

There is no simple answer as to why our kids become violent, but we do know that children are capable of violent acts. It is a sad truth we must admit. Keep in mind that a child rarely “snaps” overnight. Instead, there is a slow, disturbing trajectory in which the child adopts a view that “violence” is acceptable and there are no other options. There is also a “risk build-up” factor involved in violence. Rarely does one bad event cause a child to be suicidal or homicidal. The steady build-up 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.

Parent and Educator Lesson: Get educated about student aggression and violence. Know that violence is learned, but is also preventable. When it comes to mental health, prevention and early intervention must be the goal. Financial constraints have greatly reduced mental health services in our schools. Watch especially for children who come from troubled backgrounds or have witnessed or experienced violence or aggression. And then find that child help, ASAP.

Lesson 3: Watch for Marginalized, Affect-Hungry Boys

The signs of a troubled child are subtle, but predictable. We can begin to spot those signs in kids as early as six or seven. We must tune in closer to “at risk” kids, especially to “marginalized” youth. These kids typically are not troublemakers. They generally do not participate in activities or attend school events. They usually are not connected to a particular teacher or seek out help from a counselor. Because they often isolate themselves and don’t make those waves, they easily be overlooked. Peer and parent comments about the Chardon High School shooter were classic signs: “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.”

Educator Lesson: Watch for kids-especially boys-who are socially isolated, withdrawn, victimized by peers, or “affect hungry.” Boost adult visibility in congregated areas such as school cafeterias or gyms and look for loners or kids who appear marginalized. Watch also for “who isn’t there” at school events and activities. Then start discussing as a staff “Who we might be overlooking.” List your vulnerable students. Assign a staff member to seek that child out at least once a day – even if it’s to pass on a smile or a quick, “hello.” One caring adult can be enough to make a transformational difference on a student life.

Lesson 4: Recognize “Commonalities” of School Shooters

The U.S. Secret Service conducted one of the most thorough studies of school shooters over the past decades to try and create a “profile.” That study uncovered certain commonalities of shooters – and many appear to fit the young man arrested at Chardon High School yesterday.  Though these characteristics do not predict a shooter (and information about the arrested youth remains sketchy). The signs are important to discuss as a staff. Student school shooters are more likely to be:

  • Male
  • Caucasian
  • Withdrawn (pulls back from school activities)
  • Isolated or rejected from peers
  • Living in a rural community
  • Have easy access to weapons
  • Bullied repeatedly from a young age (there is a point when the bullied child flips roles and becomes the bully)
  • From a troubled home

Several school students were also mentally disturbed (read Jonathan Kellerman’s book Savage Spawn). In addition, there are warning signs of a child who may become violent (to himself or others). Michael G. Conner, Psy.D. and Medical Psychologist offers a few other signs to watch for:

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.

Educator Lesson: Talk as a staff about students who may be displaying such signs. Hold those “courageous conversations” in which you discuss kids who you know may be hurting or whose behavior concerns you. Report your concerns to the counseling staff and to the child’s parents. 

Parent Lesson: Tune into your child closer. Are you noticing a change in his behavior that lasts too long, has become too intense, is spilling over into too many other areas of his life and just is too different from his typical self? If so, seek professional help now.

Lesson 5: Provide Reporting Options and Encourage Students to Tell

Did you know that 75 percent of teens contemplating suicide, homicide or a school shooting tell their plans to a peer? That’s why a key piece to school safety is to provide students with ways to report those threats. While we hope students would tell those threats to an adult, the truth is most kids do not. Therefore, it’s crucial that we provide several types of reporting options including: anonymous reporting strategies (via websites, text, phone lines), designated teachers or counselors to tell, and peer mentors.

We must then encourage students to report any threats. 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 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 (including threats posted via Facebook, texts, emails and twitter). Those actions have thwarted peer suicides and school shootings because they were trained in that important distinction.

Educator and Police Lesson: Make sure your school has a designated website and/or phone hot line where students can report threats. Provide “locked” report boxes in key locations around the school campus where students can post concerns. Last week I spoke with several student high school focus groups, who said many peers are no longer utilizing the school website hot-line service because the staff was not taking their reports seriously or acting on those reports fast enough.  They also thought it helpful to designate trained peer mentors as another reporting option.

Lesson 6: Beware of the Copycat Effect

After a school shooting there is always the danger of a “copy-cat” event. Do also know that research finds that shootings are most prevalent during the spring. The anniversary of the Columbine shooting, April 14, is also approaching.

Educator and Parent Lesson: Monitor your children’s viewing habits and media images of the shootings. Center your attention of the victims, and not on the shooter.

Early intervention to violence is critical! Warning signs of violence can be seen in even six or seven year olds. It’s the build-up of risk factors that makes a child particularly vulnerable to violence. The problem is that those risk factors build, but no one steps in to remove one. Violence is learned and in the vast majority of cases tragedies could have been prevented if someone had intervened.

The best solution for ending the cycle of youth violence is always one caring adult who recognizes a child’s pain and steps in to help. Be that adult!

My heart aches for the community of Chardon, Ohio. My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims’ families.

@2012 Provided by Dr. Michele Borba http:www//micheleborba.com

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