As I was doing research for my blog post today, I came across numerous articles and blogs that all sung the same tune: violence in schools is deadly and tragic, and we need to focus our efforts on understanding possible causes and enforcing prevention of this serious issue. The articles also rang clear: how do we predict, prevent, and eliminate the prevalence of students and other distressed individuals coming into schools and erupting in violent means? I was moved to write about this topic today because of the hostage situation and suicide in a Wisconsin high school on November 29th. Although school shootings and violence are quite rare, it struck a chord with me as I pondered how school violence appears to be getting more tragic and more frequent. In this particular situation, the gunman, a 15 year old high school student, held his English class hostage for five hours before fatally shooting himself. Quotes from his classmates state that he had no demands — he barely even spoke at all during the situation — and that he gave no evidence why he brought several guns and several magazines of bullets to class that day. His teachers and fellow students state that he had not appeared distressed before that day and they were not aware of any bullying. So now, tragically, a young teenager is dead, dozens of others are emotionally traumatized, and there are NO answers.
Installing metal detectors in schools is one of the first responses of many school officials in the wake of a school tragedy or violent incident. This may help to detect when a weapon is entering the school — and prevent violence ensuing — however, it does not prevent (or explore) the feelings and motivations felt by these children (CHILDREN) that causes them to feel they need to react in violent ways. School counselors are on hand for the emotional needs of students, however oftentimes the counselors are overwhelmed with the amount of students and tasks on their caseload and are unable to provide the type of counseling that emotionally distressed students may desperately need.
There is no set profile for a student who may engage in school violence. There are the stereotypes, of course: he is usually a “goth” or wears “trenchcoats”; he was being bullied or had no friends; and, most basically, that it is typically a “he”. Going through evidence of school shooting scenes over the past decade, researchers find less and less of a solid profile of this population. A helpful article explains the top ten myths about school violence. The impulse to think that “he just snapped” is one of these myths. Oftentimes, students who react in violent means have tried to get help for emotional disturbances but have not felt like they were helped or did not have resources for further treatment. An example of this is the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007, where Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people, wounded many others, and then committed suicide — after several years of receiving therapy and special education courses. Seung-Hui was South Korean, debunking another assumption and myth that most school shootings are by White, American men. He had been given a previous diagnosis that would have helped Virginia Tech counselors understand predisposed issues he was working on, but due to federal privacy laws this diagnosis was not disclosed as he entered the university. This makes me ponder how lack of communication and legal issues can also create gaps in the school system that may affect the mental health care of students.
For those parents who have students in schools, I do not intend to increase your worry. I simply am hoping that we as a community can take more care to listen to our children and to notice when they might be going through some difficult times. Adolescence and teenagehood is certainly stressful for parents and children both. Some signs that your child might be distressed can be if he or she talks about being bullied or put down at school, if he or she feels lonely and displaced in the social environment, if he or she has severe appetite or sleep shifts (eating/sleeping too much or too little), if he or she has extreme mood swings and hesitates to open up about what is going on. I encourage you to find someone for your child to talk to: a trusted adult, the school counselor, an outside counselor, a priest or clergyman, or another family member. While it may be like pulling teeth to get your child to talk to someone, I believe strongly that the sooner that we can intervene in emotional distress, the better our children will feel and the safer we all will be.