After it's over, massive services are available.
Unless we were lucky, we went to bed on Valentine's Day 2018 with another mass shooting on our hearts, instead of images of flowers and candy.
After I heard the news around 6 PM, I did enough research to get the basic facts straight, and then stopped reading and listening. The rumors and allegations were already starting to fly, and there wasn't going to be any more substantial and accurate information out there for some time. What I got was that a 19 year-old former student had killed 17 and wounded others; that he had been expelled from the school for disciplinary issues; that he had been banned from carrying a backpack on campus after making threats to other students; that he had numerous social media posts of himself with guns and knives, some of which included threatening language.
Since then, the only relevant information that has come forth is that he and a younger brother were adopted by a couple from New York when they moved to Broward County; that the father died 10 years ago of a heart attack; the mother died last November of pneumonia; that the firearm he used in the shooting was purchased by him legally. Less relevant is the fact that he was living with the family of a friend from the high school; that they had the rifle locked up in a gun safe; that he was working and had gone to adult education classes.
There are MANY things on here I could comment on with knowledge, but I'm going to limit this blog post to the most important issue, which is that I KNOW how to solve the problem of school shootings, BECAUSE I HAVE DONE IT BEFORE. Not by myself, certainly, but I provided the person responsible for implementing the program with the necessary understanding of the problem, and the steps needed to provide a reasonable guarantee of safety.
Let me state the obvious: if the person who is responsible for making the safety arrangements does not know about the problem, they can't fix it. Yesterday, I saw that the school superintendent of Broward County stated he had not been aware of any problems with the student before yesterday. There is NO reason that a school superintendent SHOULD be aware of an individual student's record; there are 324 schools in Broward County, with an enrollment of 217,517 students. That's not where the responsibility lies for an individual school's safety. That rests with the building-level administrator, the school principal.
According to statements by students and teachers, they were well aware of the shooter's previous threats, and students at least knew of his bizarre and threatening posts on social media. Sometimes students know things, and they don't tell adults. However, in MOST (but not all) cases where something bad is brewing, as adult will know. Whether that is communicated to an adult who can do something about it is a function of effective communication between school, home, and community.
Here's what I did to prevent school shootings:
I was a middle school counselor, but my background was as a marriage and family counselor, and I also had extensive experience in working at mental health facilities. Based on my experience, I submitted a progressive plan for dealing with the lethal issues of suicide and homicide, based on the fact that there are four stages of potentially lethal thoughts; for convenience sake, I'm going to discuss the topic of suicide, but these apply also to homicide, with some modifications in the cases where authorities must be consulted. This was part of an overall Crisis Plan, which was developed over time with input from administration, counselors, teachers, community members, and outside agencies.
FOUR LEVELS OF SUICIDAL CONCERNS
1. Ideation. Everybody, at some time, has had the thought that they wished they didn't have to live any more, even if it's only expressed as 'I wish tomorrow wouldn't come.' It's an expected part of being a person with emotions. This ISN'T something that needs a massive over-reaction! People need to be able to talk, and that was my job as a counselor. The intervention in this case was to provide an opportunity for the student to discuss their situation, help them find alternatives, and assure them that what they were feeling was normal, and that they weren't crazy. I also encouraged them to develop additional trusted adult resources. I notified parents, usually with the student present, assuring the parent that the student had not given me any reason to fear for their lives, but that this was something that they should talk about together, and seek help if they felt it was warranted.
2. Intent. This is a statement by the student that they have a plan to kill themselves, and is much more serious than just thinking "I wish I was dead." This is NOT universal, and should ALWAYS be taken seriously. Safety has to come first, and the safety plan in this case is to contact the parent, and have them come pick the student up at school. They are to take them to a licensed mental health professional, and have a formal suicide evaluation done. THIS EVALUATION IS NOT WITHIN THE PURVIEW OF THE SCHOOL COUNSELOR, even if the counselor has professional credentials, and that must be understood by all concerned. The student is excused from school, and will not be re-admitted until the school receives a clearance and appropriate guidance from a mental health professional.
Modifications for homicidal, instead of suicidal intent: a lethal threat against another person, particularly when accompanied by the means to do so, is a crime. Therefore, in addition to the steps taken for a suicidal statement, legal authorities MUST be notified. In addition to this, it is likely that the school will take some disciplinary action as well, based on the specific circumstances. HOWEVER, school discipline is NOT a substitute for notification of the appropriate legal authorities, nor for an evaluation by a licensed mental health professional.
3. Attempt. Safety first! In the event that a student makes an attempt to commit suicide at school, secure the area, and emergency services are notified first. As soon as practical, parents are notified, and the provisions stated above in #2 are also implemented.
Modifications for homicidal attempt, rather than suicidal: again, safety first! Secure the area, notify the police and emergency services. Implement provisions stated in #2.
4. Completed act. Grief and support services will be required, for students first and for faculty and staff as well. Crisis services as detailed in the school plan will be implemented based on the special circumstances. A written statement, appropriate for grade level, will be provided to all faculty and staff, and read to the entire student body by the building level administrator or their designated representative.
This system will effectively deter the majority of school shootings from taking place. (It cannot completely guarantee safety, and if someone tells you of a plan that can, they are trying to sell you something.) At the time we implemented this plan, I studied the responses of other school districts that had experienced school shootings, and in every case, one or two of these steps had not been implemented, usually failure to contact legal authorities and failure to require a mental health screening, prior to re-admission.
It REQUIRES active support from the building level administrator first, and the backing of system-wide administrators second. My experience has been that MOST parents will comply with the requirements to have their child be evaluated, particularly when the school can offer a list of service providers, who will do the evaluation at no cost to the parent. However, SOME parents will resist, at which point the firmness of the building level administrator is essential. If necessary, it must be pointed out to the parent that failure to follow through with a required mental health examination is neglect, and must be reported to the Department of Family and Children Services. Very rarely, I have had to have the Sheriff's Department transport a student to the county mental health facility for an evaluation. If the building level supervisor is not fully supportive, or if system-wide administration prevents it, this drastic step cannot be implemented, and without this as a final option, the entire system falls apart. I had the great good fortune to work under a series of strong, proactive administrators for most of my career, with only one weasel in the bunch.
There are other things required to maximize school safety. Restricted access to campus is important, but that isn't enough. There MUST be an armed presence on campus to act as a quick reaction force. People who have suggested metal detectors seem to be unaware of the 1998 killing of two police officers at the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, where the gunman shot his way past the checkpoint. I operated a metal detector station during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, and cannot possibly imagine a way to apply that technology reliably to the influx of a thousand students into a building over any reasonable period of time; in addition, the presence of metal detectors completely ignores the fact that a PERSON is required to intervene if a weapon is detected.
There are other issues which I would like to address, such as the failure of our mental health system, and the futility of calling for additional gun controls. However, I've stated my main case: I KNOW of a plan which requires ONLY resolution on the part of school administration, and does NOT require any additional funding. And it works.
Peace be on your household.