By Bill Young
In the aftermath of the spate of horrific school shootings that have plagued our nation during the past twenty years, America’s collective hearts and minds have been left with indelible memories of our children fleeing from their schools amid violence and chaos.
Invariably, after each of these incidents there are a host of experts who pontificate on how we will eradicate this problem. Unfortunately, many of these people have never worked within a school or interacted with large groups of students to clearly comprehend the group dynamic of teenagers. Moreover, many of those that are espousing these panaceas do not have specific training in school safety or fully comprehend the workings of our public school system.
The most common refrain from many is that more gun control or ensuring that we have made our schools hardened targets by implementing metal detectors, armed police or security professionals, bullet-proof glass and surveillance systems. These may be fallacies because when a sociopath is bent on inflicting carnage and destruction, many of these safeguards can be circumvented, as we have seen in Columbine, Colorado; Parkland, Florida and many of the other schools.
Many of these measures provide a false sense of security, and by the time they are needed, it may be too late. These are tools that are needed, but will not prevent the mayhem; they only mitigate the damage. Case in point, in many cases, by the time video surveillance is reviewed, the killing has already unfolded.
Our nation must adopt a far more proactive approach to violence within our schools. It is crucial for our educators and law enforcement officials to work in unison to enact preventative and intervention strategies that will potentially thwart violence and carnage. These measures should include enhanced training for those in the school community and a threat assessment system that identifies individuals who demonstrate a propensity to act out in violence.
Moreover, we also must commit to ensuring that each student feels some form of connection to his or her school community.
The participants within the school environment must include the students and parents, educators, police and fire personnel, social service agencies and even the clergy. They should be trained in how to recognize those individuals who based on comments and behavior may be demonstrating mental health distress and might have the proclivity to commit violence against others.
Training could also include the procedures that a particular school has in place to combat such violence. This would be a campaign that could include assemblies, community meetings, letters and emails. Stakeholders should be very clear on whom to contact in the case of an emergency or how to provide a tip to the proper authorities.
An extensive threat assessment system should be implemented with cooperation and partnerships among the schools, police and social service agencies. They must share information and document how likely an individual is to act out based upon comments and behaviors. This would be in the form of a report that analyzes the individual’s criminal history, academic progress, family structure, disciplinary record and social network and prior threats to commit violence. More than likely, a school staff member would be the appropriate person to prepare the report.
A commonality among many school shooters has been their feelings of alienation and ostracism. School personnel and fellow students must work on making all students feel welcome and accepted. They are doing a great job with some student groups, such as minorities and the gay community; however, many students who may be perceived as odd or strange still feel completely left out. Most importantly, all students must feel valued and that they are a part of the school community.
While there is definitely a need to enhance school safety in our schools through armed security personnel and surveillance cameras, this is not a panacea and by the time this is needed it is already too late. Some 19 years ago, during the shooting at Columbine there was a law enforcement officer on duty and the school had a comprehensive surveillance system. However, there were enough red flags present about the two shooters that if they had all been collected and documented, there would be a significant chance that this atrocity could have been prevented.
This is not simply a gun control issue, because these deranged individuals aren’t willing to follow our laws, and if they did not use guns they might use bombs or a truck.
School safety is a multi-faceted issue that will take entire communities to solve.
Bill Young spent more than a decade working as a school safety officer in the public system, and has consulted throughout the United States on school safety and youth violence issues. He lives in Lake Stevens.