This month marks 53 years of mass shootings in the United States.
By Brianna Caleri
This month marks 53 years since the tower shooting at the University of Texas shocked civilians into the realization that school campuses are not safe from mass shootings. In 2012, the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut crossed an incomprehensible line by making mass shootings relevant at elementary schools. While databases disagree about what constitutes a mass shooting, Education Week found that last year was the worst on record since 1970 for school shootings, with a shooting occurring, on average, every eight school days throughout the United States. Every day children go to school, it’s a relevant topic.
As the new school year approaches, there are ways for students, parents and involved community members to make a tangible difference. Uniting students, experts and volunteers can better prepare communities to address the topic, respond to credible threats and create safe environments for youth.
Kathy Martinez-Prather, director of the Texas School Safety Center, says most agreed-upon best practices are already part of state legislation. The organization acts as a mediator between the state and schools, providing technical assistance, training and research to K-12 schools, charter schools and community colleges. Most of the center’s efforts are spent on prevention, but a comprehensive approach is encouraged, acknowledging school safety involves school climate issues like mental health, dating violence, drugs, bullying and cyberbullying. It’s not just a matter of target hardening.
To enforce that comprehensive approach, Martinez-Prather says the center has been training school police, who report they receive “less than 1 percent of juvenile-justice training in the traditional police academy.” Police officers are most useful to students who trust them, providing a reliable destination for tips about threats.
One of the center’s most promoted best practices is the Behavioral Threat Assessment Model, a preventative approach to addressing credible threats of student violence and providing helpful, nonpunitive intervention. Introductory literature states the majority of school violence is targeted, and many attackers have talked about their plans. Martinez-Prather says students are often left out of prevention efforts, and through the center, she hopes to offer them more involvement with programs such as the Youth Preparedness Council.
“We need to have a fine balance between hardening our schools and not hardening our students,” she says.
One expert offering safe communication with youth about trauma is licensed play therapist Loren Lomme at Just Mind. Play therapy is an approach mostly reserved for children 8 years old and younger that lets children communicate their emotional needs naturally and indirectly. When addressing a traumatic event through play therapy, Lomme might engage a child in a puppet show that reenacts the incident. Then they’ll revise the event in the show to include different character reactions, coping skills and actions taken to get to safety.
A similar practice is used by Inuit families in raising children, employing storytelling and playacting to access complicated emotions in children too young to verbalize them, encouraging them to avoid reacting to bad behavior with anger. Lomme admires the Netherlands for its attitude toward mental health and violence, with social-emotional curriculum in school taught as any other academic subject would be.
Texas has laws to address bullying and cyberbullying that may result in jail time and fines, but Lomme worries financially punishing families stresses them and only exacerbates bad behavior.
“Kids aren’t bad—ever,” she says. “Their behaviors and emotions come from something.”
Family dynamics are so important in addressing behavioral issues that when working with a child showing anger or signs of animosity, Lomme first orders a background report that includes prenatal, birth and postnatal history, focusing on anything that can affect nervous-system development. Events early on in a child’s development can also interrupt attachments and neurological development and must be addressed very differently than when a child or teenager is acting out because of more direct and recent social causes. Lomme says the healthiest environment for children is one with a stable routine and verbal communication as soon as they can talk. If plans change, explaining why the change is occurring and even giving a heads-up can make a big difference in helping children feel safe.
Before parents and therapists have a chance to intervene in violence at school, teachers provide unique adult access to the student population. Unfortunately, they can get caught between the responsibility of school administration and the firsthand experience of incidents when they slip through the cracks. Some argue teachers should be armed but others insist a teacher’s job shouldn’t be to act as a bodyguard.
“The notes [students] leave me when they graduate and daily reminders of the struggles they overcome are why I keep going back,” Felipe A. Trimiño says about the responsibility of facing potential violence every day as a teacher. “That said, I am not sure I would have been able to go back were it not for the counseling help I got.”
Several years ago, Trimiño witnessed a teenager die by suicide. First-aid support came immediately, and in the following days, the district sent counselors and social workers to the school. Communities in Schools, an organization that offers support to encourage students to stay in school, provided long-term support to see the community all the way though the complicated process of healing.
“We can and do educate ourselves on best practices to remain safe [and]we practice potential events yet know we are vulnerable no matter how much we try,” Trimiño says. “When I think about what our students need and deserve, I think that there is no way I’d leave them for a false sense of security.”
Similarly dedicated teachers at the University of Texas can volunteer in a new program partnered with the campus police department called the Victims Advocate Network. When police respond to an incident, they can offer to dispatch a plainclothes VAN volunteer who has undergone 40 hours of initial training, including police ride-alongs, to provide calm and nonjudgmental support while the officers gather reports. With a volunteer present, a victim or witness can avoid sitting with intrusive thoughts about an incident or answering intimidating questions alone. Since its initiation in January, VAN has only been called to non-life-threatening accidents and has 20 volunteers, with a goal to recruit 20 more.
Program coordinator Marica Wright recommends civilians, who are not eligible to volunteer for VAN, seek out similar opportunities, such as Travis County Integral Care Mental Health First Aid training, or training through the Austin Police Department or Travis County Sheriff’s Office’s Victim Services. People in need of help should look online for resources and hotlines, and most importantly, they should ask for help when they need it.
Wright’s philosophy is to make a difference one person at a time.
“Sometimes it can feel really overwhelming when we look at the big picture of trauma,” she says, noting we can make the most difference “when we center ourselves back into the moment and we remember how much of a difference each effort makes for each person we’re helping.”
HOW TO START THE CONVO
Take care of your own stress. Remind yourself there are people whose job it is to create change on a larger scale. It’s most important you do your best for yourself and the individuals around you.
Get tools and tips. Visit the webpage for the Texas School Safety Center to download PDFs about warning signs, the most helpful ways to make youth of all ages feel safe and advice for reacting to a crisis.
Communicate. Make sure students and youth around you know you’re willing to provide nonjudgmental support if they feel overwhelmed or want to report something they heard or saw.
Volunteer. Ask your local police department for information about volunteering for victim services or other training and certifications that might help in a crisis.