In Part I, we discussed how the “intuitive” measures to address potential school shootings – more security, more armed personnel, more expulsions, more mental health resources – actually aren’t effective at preventing shootings. Instead, they mostly focus on dealing with shooters when they’ve already shown up with a gun. At that point, the risk of injury and death is exponentially higher for everyone. Far better to find ways to defuse potential situations before that happens.
Dr. Jillian Peterson, one of the authors of The Violence Project, gave a podcast interview where she spoke at length about the need for “off ramps” — points along every child’s timeline where a caring adult or even a caring peer, provides a way to stop the forward progress toward a violent event. She likened school shooters to overfilled balloons; off ramps offer a way to let some air out of the balloon before it pops. They are, in a very real sense, release valves for the emotion and violent suicidal determination building in the individual.
Research shows that these off ramps can completely deter violent intentions. It has further demonstrated that the responsibility for building these ramps doesn’t have to rest with people who have some formal capacity or even much in the way of specialized training. This is important because under our current paradigms, these matters often get referred to law enforcement but law enforcement’s ability to act is limited. If there’s no crime, no indication of immediate threat, their hands are tied. School communities intent on building off ramps, however, can act long before the police would normally be called in. Off ramp “construction” can start as soon as kids begin school, building a network of support and care that continues through the child’s formal schooling.
Some potential off ramps every district can (and should) put in place:
Trauma screening beginning in early childhood. Childhood trauma is a highly prevalent commonality among school shooters. Beginning trauma screening in Kindergarten allows teachers and administrators to identify very early who may need extra support at school or resources outside of school. It also has the potential for identifying and stopping ongoing trauma such as abuse.
Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). SEL is critically important, especially for boys. Giving children the vocabulary to name their emotions and identify the source of those feelings, as well as the tools to cope with stressful or traumatic situations and regulate their own behavior, goes a long way toward building the resilience kids need to get through the more difficult teen years. There’s been some pushback in recent months against SEL, linking it to Critical Race Theory, probably because of its emphasis on tolerance. SEL, however, builds important life and work skills that maximize children’s chances of success in higher education, the workforce, and their personal lives. Research has demonstrated over and over that these skills convey life-long benefits in higher education, earning potential, relationship longevity, and even overall health. SEL is necessary to help kids who are struggling but also to enable kids who are not to be supportive of their struggling classmates.
A community of caring adults and students. The goal here is to wrap kids back into the community, to help them feel seen and heard, to communicate to them that they matter. This may need to happen repeatedly throughout their school years. Smaller class sizes help with this, as does a little extra time in teachers’ school days to be thoughtful and intentional and relational with kids. This is an important finding in The Violence Project’s research: schools with warm, inclusive environments see far fewer incidents of any kind of violence. Communities with this ethic are going to be especially important at the middle and high school level where it’s easier for kids to fall through the cracks.
Training for staff, parents, and students on the warning signs, not just violent ideation (drawings, speech, posts) but signs of building stress and suicidal behaviors as well – remember, most school shooters are actively suicidal. Working in tandem with suicide prevention groups on campuses is a natural partnership. The safety net here needs to be as broad as we can make it and there needs to be a clear understanding that everyone and anyone can be the person who builds an off ramp for a struggling kid. No fancy degrees necessary, just a willingness to act when they see something that seems off or concerning. Recognizing warning signs and intervening to communicate care and support is everyone’s responsibility.
A carefully constructed reporting process where friends and family can alert others to concerns without fear of subjecting a loved one to negative outcomes. The Violence Project’s research revealed that multiple interviewees knew a school shooter was planning something but they didn’t want him to be arrested or expelled so they said nothing. The purpose of the reporting system is to intervene with compassion and draw the student back in, not to exclude and alienate. This is help, not punishment. We definitely want people to report violent drawings and writings, social media threats, etc., but we want them to report concerns before things go that far, drawing attention to kids who seem lost, who have no friends, who are being bullied, who seem depressed, who’ve talked about harming themselves. And it’s worth saying that districts need to have very clear and specific protocols for dealing with a child when violent or suicidal ideation is reported so that they can avert a potential tragedy; protocols that consider the immediate safety of students and staff and the emotional fragility of the student in question.
The upshot is, we don’t need fortresses or armed teachers or a team of psychiatrists. We need raised awareness, training in recognizing the signs, and strategies to help all kids feel included and welcomed and seen. We need specific educational experiences that help kids, particularly boys, give voice to their feelings and find healthy ways to cope. We need a school culture that demands we look out for one another and refuses to let anyone fall by the wayside. And we need ways to raise the alarm when someone is teetering on the edge so that many hands can reach out and pull them back before they go over.
This is how we short circuit the evolution of the school shooter.
The Violence Project’s website has extensive data collected on mass shooters. They also have a collection of free resources to help identify how everyone can build off ramps for struggling kids before they erupt into violence. There’s also a great TEDX talk from a man who had decided to shoot up his high school but was diverted by the actions of a single person. And here’s an AP piece that details some of the complexities and human costs of gun policies for school campuses — the thorny issue of recognizing when a student isn’t trying to precipitate a mass event but has other issues going on.