Preventing School Violence and Reducing the Frequency of Disturbing Threats

Mark D. Lerner, Ph.D., President
The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress

Due to requests from members who represent the educational field, this article is reprinted from the Fall/Winter 2000 edition of Trauma Response®

The following article appears as the foreword to the new fourth edition of A Practical Guide for Crisis Response in Our Schools. For additional information about the guide, please see page 25 of this edition of Trauma Response®. Dr. Mark D. Lerner is President of The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress and Publisher of Trauma Response®. He is an author of A Practical Guide for Crisis Response in Our Schools and frequently consults in the areas of preventing school-based tragedies, reducing the frequency of disturbing threats in our schools, and school crisis response. Comments may be directed to Dr. Lerner at the Academy¹s administrative offices at 368 Veterans Memorial Highway, Commack, New York 11725.

Introduction

Not long ago the most severe problems encountered in our schools were students running in the halls, making excessive noise, cutting a line, talking out-of-turn, chewing gum or violating a dress code.
Today, we are faced with a dramatic increase in the frequency of assaults and gang activity. Additionally, we are seeing an increase in the frequency of substance abuse, self-mutilation, suicide, abandonment of newborn babies, and serious injuries and deaths from automobile accidents. We are also contending with new types of trauma including hostage-taking, sniper attacks, murders, terrorist activities, ³hit lists,² threatening graffiti, bomb scares and real bombs.

In response to this disturbing trend, The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress published A Practical Guide for Crisis Response in Our Schools. Since the release of the first edition, the Academy has been regularly updating and revising the document in response to the rapidly changing climate in our nation¹s schools.

As a foreword to the fourth edition of the guide, I would like to address what may be some of the causes of the dramatic increase in the frequency of school-based crises and offer practical strategies for preventing tragedies in our schools. Secondly, in response to a recent trend of disturbing threats in our schools, I would like to share a strategy for reducing the frequency of such threats as bomb scares, hit lists and threatening graffiti.

Causes of School-Based Tragedies

Although statistically rare, the frequency of dramatic, well-publicized school-based disasters is increasing. Even more disturbing is that less-publicized tragedies are impacting upon members of our school families, every day, at a significantly faster rate than ever before. In fact, we no longer question if a school will be faced with responding to a tragedy, but when.

Many factors contribute to the causes of school crises and we must not focus on only one. Research is helping us to understand the relationship between violent television programs, movies, music lyrics and violent behavior. Additionally, investigation concerning the impact of violent computer and video games is presently underway. Should we be more concerned with these media due to their interactive nature?
We hear about the availability of guns and other weapons and we cannot ignore the data. From 1992 to 1999, 77 percent of all violent deaths in schools were caused by guns (The Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, 1999). We must develop zero-tolerance policies.

There is a dramatic increase in alcohol and substance use among our children, peer pressure and gang involvement. We are learning about children who are tormented and teased, and then go on to harm themselves and others. We are seeing the effects of divorce, ³latchkey kids,² parents working long hours and an absence of parental supervision, training and example-setting. Today, there are relaxed curfews, a lack of respect for authority and a lack of family involvement with schools. There is a changing family structure as well, with a large number of single parent families, grandparents and extended family living in the home. There is also a growing trend of violence related to race and/or religion. This is particularly disturbing in light of the fact that diversity in America is rapidly increasing. The extent to which these variables are related to the quantitative and qualitative changes in school-based crises will become more apparent with time and with further empirical investigation.

The inevitability of illness, accidents and loss may be accepted and even anticipated by schools that often view themselves as microcosms of our world. But why is there such a dramatic increase in deliberately-caused tragedies‹those of intentional human design?

I believe that at the very core of our problem is a fundamental communication breakdown in families‹the result, in large part, of an increasingly technological and mechanized world. We are spending less time communicating, teaching and modeling appropriate behavior with our children‹we are losing the battle to the proliferation of electronic media.

Today¹s children all too often leave or avoid the dinner table or family room, opting for the new era in violent television, video and computer games, and Internet chat rooms. Consequently, our children lack interpersonal communication, coping and problem-solving skills to meet the challenges of our new world‹one reason why an increasing number of them act-out feelings of anger and frustration in dangerous attention-seeking ways, self-medicate with alcohol and other substances, and commit suicide at a higher rate than ever before. Media today offers our children a regular dose of violence and I cannot underscore enough the negative impact this has on our society.

Practical Prevention Strategies

While consulting in the area of school crisis prevention, I am frequently asked about the efficacy of installing metal detectors, surveillance cameras and conducting safety audits. At the end of last school year, I recall one superintendent who asked whether book bags should be permitted in schools. Although there are certainly benefits gained from taking these steps, I believe that they fail to address the root of the problem.

We must help our children and adolescents to develop and enhance their communication and problem-solving skills. We must teach them how to actively listen and to empathize when relating with others. We must help our children to understand the importance of articulating their feelings about themselves and for others, and to know that it is okay to err on the side of caution when expressing concerns about others. We must regularly remind them that they can turn to their parents and/or school support personnel who will take the time to listen and respond to them.

Too often our children and adolescents hear of disturbing ideation or plans prior to a tragedy and they do not know how to respond. It is not until the aftermath of a disaster that we see survivors interviewed and we hear them describe how the alleged perpetrator had, in some way, suggested impending doom. In cases of adolescent suicide, more than 80% of kids who commit suicide tell someone, in some way, that they are going to end their life. Our children do not know what to do or where to turn with critical information.

We must work toward improving communication in order to prevent violent school-based tragedies. Yet, we must address our problem through a multimodal approach. For instance, we can help our children and adolescents to identify physiological changes in their bodies which may precede or coincide with feelings of frustration and anger. We can help them to understand which behaviors/actions cause others to become frustrated and angry. We can teach them to become aware of and to identify negative self-statements that generate feelings of frustration and anger. And, we can help our children to learn to replace self-defeating statements with positive coping statements. Behaviorally, we must model and espouse appropriate moral behavior, set limits and be consistent with our responses to aberrant behavior. Ultimately, we must teach our children to show compassion and sincerity in relating with others.

We must help our children to understand that conflict is a natural part of interpersonal relationships. When we handle conflict well it presents an opportunity to learn, to better understand ourselves and to generate creative solutions. When we handle conflict poorly, it can lead to violence.

We must help our children to make more adaptive, goal-directed decisions when faced with feelings of frustration. For example, we can teach them that it is okay to walk away from altercations or to take a few moments to ³cool down.² We can teach our children to express themselves assertively, to implement relaxation techniques, and to utilize conflict resolution and peer mediation skills.
The latter areas of conflict resolution and peer mediation offer great potential. When we ask children and adolescents what they believe may help to reduce the frequency of school-based tragedies, they indicate that there needs to be more constructive opportunities for expression of feelings. On the other hand, we must keep in mind that conflict resolution techniques and peer mediation programs presuppose conflict. It is my conviction that we must reach our children when they are very young and provide an ongoing effort to develop their communication and problem-solving skills.

Finally, we must view all students as being ³at risk.² However, there are ³early warning signs² to identify students who should be considered at greater risk for engaging in violent behavior (see checklist below). Let us all become hypervigilant, learn to err on the side of caution, and work toward preventing violent tragedies in our schools.

Reducing the Frequency of Disturbing Threats

In the aftermath of recent highly publicized tragedies in our nation¹s schools, we have experienced a dramatic increase in the frequency of disturbing threats. Through opportunities in consulting, I gained a greater appreciation of the impact of such threats in our schools. For example, when a bomb threat is made by telephone, e-mailed or written on a bathroom wall, there is an enormous impact on the school community. The potential need to evacuate a school building under such circumstances presents a host of complex decisions for school administrators. Ensuring the safety of the school family and preventing further disruption of the educational process is crucial.

Many feelings are generated from observing bomb-sniffing dogs comb a school. I recall one principal¹s description of how traumatized he, his students and staff were after standing outside of the building for nearly two hours while dogs searched the building. He indicated that when they reentered the school everyone was anxious, hypervigilant and startled by every closing locker.

As I spoke with administrators, I learned of other disturbing threats such as ³hit lists² and threatening graffiti. For example, the traumatic stress endured by fourteen students, teachers and school administrators specifically named on a poster that was placed in the entrance area of one high school was profound. The poster described how each of them would be harmed. Furthermore, the fear that was experienced by another school family after the statement ³Everyone will die on June 4th² had a far-reaching impact upon the entire community. After the building principal informed parents of the threat, nearly all of the eighteen hundred students were absent from school‹many roamed the streets of the community.

Understanding what may have caused or contributed to the surge of disturbing threats in our nation¹s schools in the wake of well-publicized tragedies may help to mitigate against similar behavior in the future.
The reasons why some students choose to make bomb threats, develop ³hit lists,² or write threatening graffiti are complex, and ultimately sound research will help us to understand the relationship between these threats and such variables as domestic violence, sexual abuse, substance abuse, chronic teasing and tormenting, etc. Following is my theoretical perspective based upon many years of clinical experience in working with children and adolescents as well as my interpretation of extant literature.

There are a significant number of young people who are feeling alone and powerless in our rapidly changing world. When these individuals observe the tremendous and overwhelming attention following highly-publicized dramatic events, many of them identify with the aggressor(s). They may fantasize about an opportunity to overcome feelings of aloneness, inadequacy, weakness and powerlessness. They envision themselves acting-out and perhaps overcompensate for these dystonic feelings. Fortunately, relatively few act upon these violent impulses with significant magnitude. Apparently there is some impulse control which prevents them from going to the extent that perpetrators of violent mass casualty incidents ultimately manifest. However, in their minds, they see an opportunity to take action, of a lesser magnitude, and still draw a great deal of attention.

As I reflect upon disturbing threats experienced in our schools, I ask myself why some schools experience many threats, why others experience few, and why others seem to escape such experiences. I hypothesize that the climate established by the school staff and administration is directly related to the frequency of disturbing threats.

Educators must be careful not to challenge disturbed young people with statements like, ³Our school is a safe place and we will not experience the kinds of events that you heard about yesterday....² Such statements may serve to create a double bind‹a challenge for these individuals. They may incite these students to try to disprove authority figures, to make themselves feel more powerful and to help them to compensate for their feelings of inadequacy and weakness. Furthermore, educators that ignore the highly-publicized tragedies occurring in our nation¹s schools are missing a critical opportunity to help young people articulate disturbing thoughts and feelings, and to learn more adaptive coping strategies.
What can we do to decrease the frequency of disturbing threats? If indeed the ³type² of individual or individuals who generate threats are trying to overcompensate for feelings of aloneness, inadequacy, weakness and powerlessness, we must work toward helping these young people to understand that the effect that they are trying to achieve by making a threat (i.e., to overcompensate for these disturbing feelings) will not result in the attainment of their perceived goal (e.g., to feel more powerful). Rather, the result of the threat may likely cause them to be arrested, feel very alone while incarcerated, more inadequate, weaker and truly powerless. If in fact we focus our attention on helping young people to understand and observe the CONSEQUENCES of being caught for making disturbing threats, the frequency of such threats may be dramatically reduced.

How can we focus our attention on the consequences of being caught? The responsibility here lies at a number of levels. For example, legislation could be enacted that would make reporting bomb threats a felony in all states. In addition to prosecuting perpetrators, these students could face significant school-related consequences including expulsion. Schools could establish clearly understood policies whereby all ³lost time² due to disturbing threats would have to be made-up. Parents could be held financially responsible for the municipal costs of responding to threats. The media could invest more attention in showing alleged perpetrators being led in handcuffs to police vans, and less time on pictures of adolescent killers sitting and smiling among their peers.

The bottom line is that we can take steps to help young people to understand the consequences of disturbing threats by focusing attention not on the glorification of such acts, but on the reality of their actions.

Conclusion

It is important to understand what factors may be causing school-based tragedies. Similarly, it would be helpful to comprehend the ideation of people who make disturbing threats. Ultimately, research will help us to understand the causative factors and the effects of specific interventions. However, like many events in a rapidly shifting zeitgeist, we must take initial thoughtful, realistic and logical steps to respond to the problems that we are facing in our schools by developing effective prevention and response strategies. May A Practical Guide for Crisis Response in Our Schools continue to serve as a national standard for responding to school-based crises.

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