Are We There Yet?

No we are not there yet…and may never be!  What have we learned from school shootings in the US?  Much, but not yet enough to sufficiently safeguard those who invariably travel to and participate daily in one of society’s most important institutions, our schools.  As a Sociologist, I often explore human interaction in social organizations. As such, we have concerns for those we invariably send off to our educational institutions to be educated in the ways of our culture, all the while being prepared for one’s prospective occupational role(s). Certainly the way law enforcement responds to school shootings to counter active shooters has changed, post Columbine and for the better. And, laws were enacted after the Virginia Tech massacre and that too was for the betterment of society. We’ve become more adept in proactively identifying and interrupting aberrant behavior.

Even though, school shootings are not at epidemic proportions, when they do occur they create an indelible mark in our social memory and we will always be reminded it is virtually impossible to insulate those who attend our elementary, middle, high schools and higher institutions of learning from directed violence that oftentimes manifest itself into school shootings.  It will undoubtedly require far more than magnetometers, School Resource Officers and other quality gate keeper modalities to keep our schools safe. Schools must have a more than adequate early warning system that consist of human capital where threats of any and all kinds and magnitudes are recognized, identified and appropriately dealt with in the most officious, efficient and expedient way possible. The early warning system and/or the students are the school’s eyes and ears. School administrators should have a written and well defined and articulated threat policy in order that students and parents alike know the schools proactive and reactive posture relative to threatening behavior. This policy should be published and updated at least yearly where all students, even new ones entering the school system throughout the year know the schools policy on how threats will be managed, communicated, investigated and ultimately mitigated.

I realize schools primary focus is to educate our children but they also have a concurrent responsibility to provide a safe environment conducive to learning, whether it’s Pre-K thru 12 or at the University level.  Students must know and understand a modern day adage and expectation, if you see something say something. We have to work to genuinely dispel the stigma and mind set associated with the disdain for “snitching” or “narking”. Students must know their information and concerns will be appropriately and professionally addressed by school officials. That there will likely be serious ramifications and consequences for those who are appropriately identified when making threats or engaging in bulling behavior. All threats have to be taken seriously. Schools should identify and assign someone within each school to be a Threat Coordinator. It may be an educator, school psychologist – school resource officer… someone to channel threats and concerns regarding known or suspected aberrant behavior. The Threat Coordinator becomes quickly acclimated on how to best handle and resolve threats and serves as an excellent conduit to the Violence Prevention Team. Schools should identify and train a Violence Prevention Team that can readily address troubling students who have expressed, communicated or conveyed threats. Violence Prevention Teams are multi-disciplinary in nature and in their approach and provide and ideal way to ensure that threat matters are readily and professionally resolved or managed. If a student is the one who threatens, determining the appropriate threat level is much easier and precise when we have a suspect or actually have identified the student making the threat.

Even though in the last decade or so most of the shooters at high schools and middle schools were themselves students. And, more times than not, the shooter commits suicide, is killed or captured by the police.  So why does the assailant take it out on the school’s students or faculty? Is the social setting and interaction or lack thereof the underlying causation of the shooters consternation, discord or wrath? The reasoning is all over the board. Violence for the most part makes sense to the one perpetrating the violence. Schools are a microcosm of society and troubling matters are not foreign or totally extraneous to the schools boundaries and are frequently brought into a school setting. And not unlike work place violence that originates with a co-worker, it is not spontaneous or “he just snapped”. The threat’s evaluation process must take into consideration the student’s personality, family dynamics, schools dynamics and the role the student plays in those dynamics.  We want to examine and appropriately analyze the “process variables” for instance, any recent acquisition of weapons? Look at the “risk factors” – a history of mental problems, etc.  “Inhibitors/Stabilizers” does the person have additional healthy affectional bonds? “Triggers” such as a pending court disposition. All these can come into play and may have a significant amount of influence on how the situation may be resolved.  Only after a thorough and timely investigation, which may include interviews with faculty, students, friends, acquaintances and other resources, can we truly  conclude  whether the threat is credible or not and what threat level we believe should be associated with the threat and whether it should be classified as  high, medium or low risk.  In the threat business we threat managers weigh the totality of the information… does the person who purports to commit a violent act perceive justification, alternatives, the consequences of his act or actions and does he have the ability to carry out such an act? This is where a multi-disciplinary approach can be beneficial in determining the best and most appropriate and lasting action.  Again, all threats must be taken seriously but certainly not all should be treated equally.

We want our schools to be reasonably safe, that is what we expect. We want educators to do what they do best to educate those they are charged with educating. We want them to be free of distractions. We want our educators to be just that and not be redirected from their swim lane into that of a mental health clinician whose responsibility is to diagnose and treat those who have some mental impairments. Due to an adolescent’s delayed maturation and emotional maturity adolescent students will be far less likely to report their concerns and suspicions of troubling situations most particularly if they have little or no confidence in the validity of the reporting process.  All schools and Board of Educations must have a strict policy where discipline is measured and swift. Although, I’m not a proponent of zero tolerance policies because of its abuse and misapplication, I do believe educators must always be on alert to anyone whose antics and or actions bring about noteworthy scrutiny.

The malcontent and recalcitrant student is sometimes the easier to identify but, the student who is brooding and seething about righting a wrong and who for all intent and purpose is somewhat of a loner will always be the more challenging and difficult to ferret out and to deal with in terms of early and appropriate intervention. As such, I created the following school training program:

The ABC’s (Aberrant Behavioral Characteristics) of School Shootings.   

Jimmy W. Mercer, M.S.