When it comes to self-defense, it is commonly understood that an ounce of prevention is worth pounds of cure. The earliest form of prevention in the school shooting threat is children’s development. From contemplating an idea to making a commitment and developing a plan to carrying out, a school shooter has a storyline that spans months or even years.
Note: This threat is multifaceted and unfortunately won’t be solved with simple techniques. Overcoming this danger will require systemic changes and a cultural shift beyond the grasp of our school staff. The following suggestions are not a comprehensive solution but highlight the power and influence our school staff does have.
Violence Prevention Skills in the Classroom
We know that nearly three-quarters of school shooters have been bullied, and many struggle with difficulties such as depression, anger, grief and/or low self-esteem. In fact, 61% demonstrate a history of suicide attempts. These violent acts are an outward expression of an internal struggle. And there is good evidence these acts are retaliation for being targeted, emasculated and tormented by their peers. However, the FBI suggests not trying to predict which students may choose to commit school violence. There is no clear-cut profile of students who may violently target the school. Trying to identify someone internalizing painful emotions is incredibly difficult, even for those trained to. But a student (or adult) who resorts to violence to solve his or her struggles is missing necessary skills that prevent a prosocial approach. This is exactly where school professionals can leverage their skills.
Teachers and school-based counselors have the skills to teach our youth the emotional intelligence they are missing. This means helping students to better understand their own emotions and those of their peers. It also includes cultivating skill sets to regulate the impulses that come with intense emotions. Teaching students (especially boys) to verbalize their struggles rather than internalizing painful emotions could reduce bullying at the onset, as well as violence seen in retaliation to it. Classroom training on self-esteem, conflict resolution, and dealing with grief and loss are just a few examples of life skills all students need, especially those who pose a violent risk to the school’s safety. Deficits in these areas contribute to externalizing painful emotions in violent ways.
Teachers’ Relationships With Students
Nowadays, educators are tasked with many responsibilities beyond teaching their core curriculum. And it’s all too easy to suggest yet another addition to that list. School staff carry burdens from administration, pressures from parents and the high needs of youth that can be exhausting. But the relationships teachers craft with their students are an essential part of the education process and may be utilized to improve school safety as well.
Educators who craft close relationships with their students increase the potential to assess concerning behaviors, make interventions and facilitate the reporting process. Assessing potential threats is complex and time-consuming; however, teachers who are well connected with their students will see and hear more. This allows them to evaluate communication and behavior that is concerning, as well as report their concerns if necessary. If reporting is not necessary, the teacher may be able to refer the child to school or community-based counseling for additional education. The additional support is essential in mitigating their developing violent intent.
Teaching relationships can also be leveraged to de-escalate and interrupt violent intent. School professionals already stop many violent encounters. And having a strong relationship with these students could make these interventions far more successful. Trusting relationships between staff and the student body provide non-violent students with a trusted avenue to make a confidential report. In 75% of the cases, at least one other person knows about the attack ahead of time. Having this information proactively drastically improves response time.
Classroom experiences promote the physical, emotional and cognitive wellness of each student, and this is exactly what our teachers and counselors are trained to do. Harnessing these skills to improve the emotional intelligence of our students and maintaining close trusting relationships can reduce violence and better prepare the students for adulthood. Our country faces a complex problem, but we are all searching for tangible solutions to have a positive impact.
Bryan Vossekuil, Robert A. Fein, Marisa Reddy, Randy Borum and William Modzeleski. The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States (Washington, D.C.: United States Secret Service and United States Department of Education, 2004), https://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/preventingattacksreport.pdf; Allison C. Paolini, “School Shootings and Student Mental Health: Role of the School Counselor in Mitigating Violence,” Vistas Online 90 (2015): 3, 7, https://www.counseling.org/docs/default-source/vistas/school-shootings-and-student-mental-health.pdf?sfvrsn=f2db432c_6.
Vossekuil, et al., The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative, 25, 27.
For further reading, see Martell L. Teasley, “School Shootings and the Need for More School-Based Mental Health Services,” Children & Schools 40, no. 3 (July 2018): 131-34.