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Photo Credit New York Post
Photo Credit New York Post

We Need to Talk.

By Priscilla Waggoner

February 21, 2018

Even in the midst of an avalanche of issues facing the country, it seems that the tragic, horrific shooting that occurred at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida has resulted in the public seeing our elected officials do something that we haven’t seen in a very long time:  the ability to take action in response to what is perceived as a national problem.  It’s up to social scientists to uncover why this particular tragedy sparked legislative action on an issue that has been equal parts polarizing and paralyzing for years.  (That’s assuming that action is ultimately taken, which is not a given.)  But common sense alone would suggest that a response from Washington had at least something to do with the group of angry, confused, frightened, vulnerable and very articulate teenagers who recently stood before television cameras and reminded us of the common ground we all share.  

No one wants kids to die.

Improved background checks should make a difference in “keeping guns from falling into the hands of the wrong people”, and that’s nothing but good news on all fronts.  The best thing we can hope for at this time is to add layers of defense between our kids and those who would do them harm. Improved background checks will provide one such layer.

But let’s not fool ourselves.  The actions of someone who goes into a school and starts shooting occur at the end of a long trail that started weeks, months or even years before.  If, as a country, we’re going to summon the courage and resolve to address this horrendous crime, we need to also have the courage to look at the whole picture. A good place to start is learning what we know.

Anyone who sets out to learn what research has been done on “school shooters” might be surprised to discover several things.  

First, there is an almost stunning lack of material on the subject, a situation that was even commented on after the shooting in Parkland by Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar. Unlike other topics that cause injury to others, there are very few studies that have been conducted on mass shootings. (A mass shooting is defined as a single shooting incident which kills or injures four or more people, including the assailant.)

Much of this is attributed to a ban that was imposed on the Center for Disease Control, the group that sets the standard for the study of most health related issues.  That ban was imposed by Congress in 1996 in legislation named the “Dickey Amendment” which, resulting largely from lobbying efforts by the NRA, stated that any gun violence related research done by the CDC would cause the CDC to lose that portion of its budget and for those funds to be permanently allocated to other areas of research. That ban was extended by Congress for two decades.  Following the Sandy Hook shooting, President Obama lifted the ban via executive action; however, in a response that several describe as being “overly cautious”, the CDC still chose to not research the topic.  That reluctance now extends to the scientific community as a whole.  Not only is funding for that type of research difficult to attain, some researchers have stated that doing research on gun violence can “kill a career” because of the attention it attracts from gun lobbyists.

Of the research that has been conducted, the results suggest that there is no single profile of a “school shooter”. Even in studies where profiles have been developed, there’s not a great deal of consistency, and they contain strong warnings against trying to apply profiles to kids who might seem to pose a risk of becoming violent.  

Nonetheless, there are some studies that have been done—largely by the FBI, the Secret Service and various universities—that share the same conclusions.  “School shooters” typically tell someone of their plans before they carry them out.  Using 37 incidents of targeted school violence, a 2004 federal study of school shootings reports that, in 81% of the incidents, at least one person—usually a friend, schoolmate or sibling—had information that the attacker was thinking about or planning a school attack.  In 59% of the cases, two or more people knew.  Sometimes, the attacker was very specific about what he was going to do; in other cases, the attacker was vague and only let people know that something “big” or “very bad” was going to happen.  Few, if any, of the peers who were told then reported it to someone in authority, mainly because of the “code of silence” that prohibits them from “snitching” to an adult.  Failing to tell an adult was also related to a “zero tolerance” approach by the school which was punitive of anyone involved in a violent activity.

However, all studies, whether they’re too general to apply or related to a specific behavior such as telling people in advance, had the same core conclusions and recommendations.

There are strong indications that kids who become attackers are, in general, disengaged from others, have little experience with success –something which is especially difficult for young males, tend to review any criticism as being synonymous with rejection and have an overwhelming desire to be acknowledged. They frequently have connections online or visit websites that promote violence and often have “helicopter” parents who have a relationship with their son from a distance.  “From a distance” can look very different on different people; for some, it means the parent is absent from the home a great deal.  With others, it may mean that the parent is present but is not invested or actively engaged in their son’s life. It may also mean the parent denies the problem that clearly exists. Other indicators cannot really be viewed as indicators, since they’re typically discussed in hindsight.  How many times have people who knew a “school shooter” said, after the incident was over, “I figure if anyone was going to come to a school with a gun, it would be him.”

The conclusions from these studies also lead to largely agreed upon recommendations:  one of the best preventative measures that can be taken is for teachers to know their students and to build a relationship.  As stated by Dr. Jeff Daniels of the University of Virginia, one of the leading researchers in the area, "Teachers have to be involved in the students' lives," said Daniels, who is compiling a database of averted school shootings. "They have to know what baselines each student has, and whether a student comes and reports a concern or a teacher, or somebody, reports a change in the student's baseline behavior, they need to get to that student in the right way — not in a punitive way, but in a 'What can we do to help you?' way."

So, perhaps establishment of trusting relationships and monitoring for changes in behavior can help avert school violence.  But what if intervention is not enough? What if a student is identified as being at risk of becoming violent, attempts have been made at connecting with the kid but to no avail, and the teacher has followed a protocol of getting in touch local authorities only to discover there is nothing the authorities can actually do?

That’s where the situation gets increasingly complicated and the most challenging realities must be faced.
Photo Credit New York Post
For 13 years, I taught high school English at a school with 2500 students in Texas.  There was a junior there whom I’ll simply refer to as “M”.  M. was the kind of young man who, almost upon first meeting, set off alarm bells.  When speaking to adults, he was polite but reserved, rarely made eye contact and typically only spoke when spoken to.  He was a year older than other kids in his same grade, the result of being held back in elementary school, and didn’t get good grades or participate in any sports or extra-curricular activities.  I also knew that he had a history of being bullied when he was younger.  However, he had a temper that would display itself in surprising intensity…it was the sudden kind of outburst that, the first time I saw it, it stopped me in my tracks. And then, it was over as quickly as it happened.  Not too long into the year, some of the other students started telling me he made them “uncomfortable”, that he talked about going to websites that sounded violent and that sometimes he said things about hurting the neighbor’s cat. And then, one Monday morning, a female student was waiting outside my classroom. She’d gotten a text over the weekend from M., and he’d taken a photo of himself posing with an assault rifle. No message, nothing. Just M., dressed in camouflage and holding an assault rifle.  The girl was terrified; she wanted to tell someone because she felt he was sending some kind of message but told me only on the condition that M. didn’t find out.  

I took the girl’s phone and showed it to the “resource officer”, which was the term we used for the two—yes, two—uniformed (and armed) police officers who were stationed at the school.  He asked how old M. was, and I told him he was 18.  He “ran a check” on M. and found out there had been a charge for trespassing, but notes on the case suggested it was actually a case of vandalism and theft that had been reduced. That was it.  The officer took the girl’s phone, sent the photo to himself, gave it back to me and said, “There’s nothing we can do.” As it turns out, M. was old enough to own the gun, which he’d bought legally. I said, “But this would suggest that M. is thinking about things that might take us all to a very bad place.”  He agreed and said, again, “There’s nothing we can do.  He hasn’t broken the law.  I can’t arrest him for what he might do, only what he’s done.”

Later that day, I tried (again) to connect with M., but the conversation went basically nowhere.  I called his mother and said (again) I was concerned about her son. I received the same response I always got when I called.  “My son is fine. He has a few problems, but that’s just because his dad left us. He’s fine.”  I referred him to the school counsellor who met with him several times. When I followed up, all she said was, “He’s…got a lot of problems.  I’m meeting with him twice a week.”  I had him as a student for a year, during which M.—who was one of 2500 students, many of whom came from challenging situations—received an amount of attention by a number of people that, in different circumstances would have been unsustainable.  

Nothing happened during that time. But all of us—every single one of us—felt we were just kicking the can down the road.  M.’s demeanor didn’t improve, neither did his ability to connect with people. And the outbursts of temper didn’t decrease, either.  Some would say we succeeded with him, and, if we did, then success must be defined not as helping but as—at the risk of being dramatic—making sure we all got to go home at the end of the day.  I don’t know what happened to M.  He moved at the end of the year, and I never heard from him again. But I heard that his neighbor’s cat disappeared the day before he left.

There are 320 million people living in the United States.  No matter how efficient, no federal government can monitor the actions of a single person in a world where people can connect on the internet and explore parts of their personality that are less than healthy if not outright dangerous. That responsibility will, like it always has, rest on the shoulders of the community where that person lives.

As the African proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child.”  In these times, it also takes a village to keep a child alive.

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