Each new act of mass violence in our schools, in our communities, and in the news, brings a wave of tragedy and heartbreak to those most directly impacted – and sadness and worry to each of us who mourn for the suffering and loss of innocent lives, whether we know them or not. “What’s next?” we wonder, “And what can we do to prevent these terrible acts of destruction?”
What may drive these senseless acts? Despair. Rage. Isolation. Feelings of being wronged. Lack of impulse control. Access to guns. Hopelessness. Any combination of these intense feeling are an explosive mixture that can lead to someone convinced that taking their own lives and/or the lives of others is their only real choice.
We need to recognize the warning signs of someone who is struggling and take positive action before this person gets to the exploding point so that they can get the help they need and so that everyone is protected. A new report, Protecting American’s Schools: A U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Targeted School Violence, indicates that most of the attacks studied could have been prevented.
Among the report’s many insights is the fact that there is NO profile of a school shooter or target. “Attackers varied in age, gender, race, grade level, academic performance, and social characteristics.“
Another key finding: All attackers exhibited concerning behaviors. “Most elicited concern from others, and most communicated their intent to attack. In many cases, someone observed a threatening communication or behavior but did not act, either out of fear, not believing the attacker, misjudging the immediacy or location, or believing they had dissuaded the attacker. Students, school personnel, and family members should be encouraged to report troubling or concerning behaviors to ensure that those in positions of authority can intervene.“
In our busy lives, we might be less aware of other people’s situations. In our families, schools, workplaces, and communities, we need to notice concerning behaviors’ for someone who showing signs of sinking into despair or rage in person and online. We need to have safe ways to report potential problems and a compassionate and effective process for helping those at risk.
Here is What We Can Do to ACT on Warning Signs Early:
1. Pay attention. Remember that most people struggling with mental health issues are victimized by others rather than being people who harm others. Additionally, whether someone is likely to become violent or not, everyone who needs it deserves help.
Is someone you know showing any of these behaviors: severe anxiety; becoming increasingly isolated; sounding very depressed; sounding like they have a huge grievance against others; making or writing comments about possible violence to themselves or others? Does their life seem to be falling apart?
What can you do? Make it safe for kids – and adults – to tell. Listen with compassion. Tell them, “Having problems does not make anyone a bad person. It just means that everyone needs help. Be sure to tell me anytime you or someone you know is having problems.” See the Kidpower Protection Promise for language and visuals, you can use to let kids know that you are committed to their safety and to helping with any kind of problem, so that they can feel safe talking to at least one adult in their lives.
Do your best to help any children – and adults – who have problems to get counseling from a professional. If they appear mentally unstable, especially if they have access to guns, make an anonymous report to law enforcement officials.
Make sure your child’s school has a Threat Assessment Team, with a safe way for students and staff to report behavior that worries them, that is committed to providing a safe and respectful environment. A number of resources for how to develop plans for schools to work with law enforcement agencies and mental health experts are included in the Enhancing School Safety Guide.
2. Stay connected with your children’s worlds in person and online. Young people need adult support and supervision, and the guidance of parents, grandparents, caring adults and educators.
Recommended Resource: An excellent book about how parents, caregivers, and other adults can do this in ways that respect the need for increased independence is Hold Onto Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, which has advice on how to create and if needed, re-create, trusting relationships between kids and their parents or other caregivers to ensure kids seek adult guidance and feel that adult support is important and helpful.
3. Teach kids about mental illness in an age-appropriate way and how to be persistent in getting help. Most of the mass shootings in schools are also suicides. Kids need to understand that wanting to harm yourself or others is unsafe and that they need and deserve to have support. Learning about mental health can help to protect kids who are struggling – and help them to understand how to protect their friends.
What can you do? Often kids are more likely to tell other kids when they have problems, especially if they are having troubles at home. Young people need to know that this is a time to get support from a trusted adult. And true stories are a compelling way to communicate this with kids and teens. One powerful example of how a teen made a positive difference, with adult guidance, is in our article: Suicide Prevention Success Story; The Opposite of Cyberbullying.
If your child, or someone they know, is struggling with thoughts of, or attempts at self-harm, it is important to listen with compassion and to seek professional counseling. In addition, you can provide opportunities for someone who is struggling with deep depression to be invited to and enjoy normal activities so they can re-balance and stay connected with family and community. See our article from Kidpower UK instructor and child/adolescent psychiatrist, Dr. Lynn Brown: Protecting Kids from Suicidal Thoughts.
What else can you do? Schools can play an important role in teaching young people how to recognize and get help for mental health problems. One of the projects of Kaiser Permanante’s Thriving Schools Initiative is an educational theater production, called Ghosted, which brings mental health challenges many young people face out into the open.
4. Promote cultures of safety, respect, and kindness everywhere we can. Reports about school shootings show that most of the attackers had been bullied. Beyond that, bullying is a major stresser in the lives of countless children and teens that can lead to long term health problems as well as tremendous misery.
What can you do? The more you know, the better you will be able to act. For a number of free online educational resources as well as curriculum and training for families, schools, and youth organizations, see Kidpower Pre-K to 12 Programs for Bullying Prevention and Healthy Relationship Skills.
Let’s all work to connect the dots and ACT EARLY to help all kids to see and feel support from the adults in their lives: to get help with problems, even if they were asked to keep a problem secret; to find solutions to conflict that promote respect and caring among peers and with adults; and to feel safe in both seeking help and reporting concerns. Very few kids with problems are potential mass shooters – but every kid who became a mass shooter had problems and exhibited problematic behaviors that were noticed, but not addressed effectively. We can do better by helping all kids know how to seek and find ongoing support from caring adults in their lives.
Let us all be more aware of the warning signs, and working together, take the actions necessary to help protect everyone and to do our best to prevent more of the these tragedies.
Published: November 17, 2019 | Last Updated: November 17, 2019