Is Preventing School Violence Possible? How You Can Help.

By Kristen Berthiaume:

More bad news in the news: a shooting at a Portland high school, another on the campus of Seattle Pacific University, the murder of two police officers and one civilian in Las Vegas, and then gun violence right here in Birmingham at Glenwood – all in the span of six days. Several media outlets are reporting 74 school shootings (including isolated altercations in addition to larger scale violence) in the 77 weeks since the Sandy Hook tragedy in December of 2012. Staggering numbers and statistics that make some of us want to lock our children in the house and never let them out. We’ve discussed ideas for talking to your kids about tragedies like these in the past here and here. The epidemic of gun violence in our country is not subject to an easy fix and attention must be paid to several elements. There are issues that need to be addressed about who can access guns, how mental health problems are identified and treated, and what factors have led our culture to become increasingly desensitized toward violence and death. But rather than stick our heads in the sand at the sheer enormity of the problem, there are things that we, as parents, can be do on a local level to help prevent these tragedies in our own schools and communities.

One of the most concerning commonalities of these tragedies was that they represented escalations of behavior and didn’t come out of nowhere. These perpetrators generally had some history of bullying or violence and almost all of them made warnings and threats in the time leading up to the attacks – out loud, in journals or stories they showed to others, or on internet and Facebook pages. Friends, family members, and acquaintances were often party to those warnings but, in many cases, didn’t take them seriously or weren’t sure how to handle them. The fact that even one of these horrific events could have been prevented if someone had told is heartbreaking. But, this trend of perpetrators making their plans known ahead of time may ultimately be the key to reducing large-scale tragedies in the future. As we become more educated about the warning signs and whom to notify of threats, we may greatly reduce the number of attacks that are actually carried out. And, since this is, sadly, an issue that disproportionately affects children and adolescents, they are the ones who are most in need of this information. We parents can and must teach our kids what to do if they hear threats or see behavior that’s dangerous.

It’s important to note that in most cases, the perpetrators were dealing with a combination of mental health issues and significant social problems. Specifically, many of them were the victims of abuse in the home or bullying at school or in the workplace, and frequently showed signs of mental illness. I don’t point this out to draw sympathy or to excuse their behavior in any way – being mistreated does not give you the right to hurt someone else. Instead, I bring this up because it helps us see how intervention at an early stage may prevent later catastrophes.

Our society is becoming increasingly aware of the harmful effects of bullying and abuse and numerous prevention programs have been put into place. Recently, anti-bullying curricula are focusing more and more on the role of bystanders. Just as we adults were asked,”If you see something, say something” in the wake of 9/11, this is a mantra schools repeat to students to help improve the likelihood that problematic behavior will be reported – peers are often in a much better position than teachers or administrators to know what a student is thinking or planning. Sit down with your child and ask him if he’s heard something like this from his teachers or counselor. Discuss what it means to him. Talk about the kinds of things that he might hear or see at school that he needs to tell an adult. Some examples would be another kid:

-Bringing or talking about about bringing a gun or knife to school
-Threatening to harm someone in his family or at school
-Writing a story, poem, or note about harming someone
-Physically harming someone at school or telling about hurting an
animal or younger child
-Talking about being physically hurt (i.e., being beaten, punched,
kicked, etc.) at home or physically bullied by a peer
-Showing frequent, unexplained, and significant anger or outbursts
-Threatening to hurt herself or talking about cutting her skin
-Warning that something terrible is going to happen at school
-Making jokes about hurting other people
-Talking about or being seen bullying someone else or teasing
someone who obviously cannot stand up for himself

Explain the difference between “tattling” to get someone in trouble and telling on someone to keep people safe. This is a harder sell with adolescents but helping them feel empathy for violence victims will make them more likely to speak up. Help your child to identify one or two trusted adults whom she could tell about something immediately -a favorite teacher from a past grade, the counselor, a librarian. Stress that he needs to find and tell one of those adults right away rather than waiting for the end of the day. Explain that, even if your child tells and there was nothing really going on, he is helping to keep everyone safe by showing that threats and dangerous behavior will be taken seriously. It’s important to explain to your child that, often, his classmates will think the kid making the threat is just kidding or blowing off steam, or they’ll expect that someone else will do something so they don’t need to (a phenomenon called “diffusion of responsibility”). That’s why it’s so important for your child to tell an adult – it’s very likely that no one else will. Tell your child that there’s no way for him to know for sure whether someone is serious when making a threat, which is why he needs to get adults involved. Encourage your child to also talk to you about anything concerning from the day so you can follow up with the school, if needed. In some cases, you may suggest that your child intervene directly in a situation when it’s happening; for example, telling a friend to stop when he is picking on a smaller student. Discuss scenarios where your child can safely say or do something to protect someone else and times where she needs to get an adult instead. Stress that if she sees a weapon or if a weapon is mentioned, she needs to get out of the situation immediately and seek help.

After you’ve had this discussion, follow up periodically. Ask your child if he has seen someone behave in a way that hurt someone else – physically or emotionally. Talk about how the victim may have felt and whether this is the kind of thing the perpetrator has done in the past. Determine if there is a threat of serious violence in the situation and whether something does or doesn’t need to be reported. Help your child make a report if he seems hesitant. Not only are you helping to create a culture at your child’s school that doesn’t tolerate violence or abuse, you’re also showing your child that he has the power to make his community safer by speaking up and holding others accountable for what they say and do.

About Kristen:
Kristen Berthiaume, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates. She obtained her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky. She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center. She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues: ADHD, learning disorders, social skill deficits, organizational problems, behavioral difficulties, anxiety, and depression. She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy. Her other day job is as mom to her daughters, ages seven and one, and four-year-old son.

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