Ive been researching school violence worldwide since the early 1980s and Ive seen how our culture has responded to these tragedies. Unfortunately, some of the most important lessons that need to be learned are often lost in a quest to understand the perpetrator. If we hope to reduce future attacks, these are the main lessons we should learn as a culture.
Lesson 1: Students, teachers, and family members are our most important line of defense for saving lives. In almost all mass school shooting events the perpetrator has sent out many messages to friends, family, and peers. These signs follow a similar pattern across many of the shooting situations. This means we need ways to allow these groups to pass information on to the correct places that could address potential danger. Almost all K-12 school murders that have been thwarted were stopped because a student, faculty member, or family member came forward before the event occurred. When these types of lethal events are prevented, our nation should celebrate as heroes the students, teachers, and family members who saved lives. This past year we had one such event in Green Bay. Students were amassing napalm, firearms and had a clear plan to create another Columbine-like massacre. Luckily, one student came forth (many students knew and heard about it), and the school/ authorities took the threat seriously. This tragedy was averted due to the student who heard about the pending attack and the appropriate response from professionals. However, through local media and sometimes the grapevine (and we should have a better way of knowing when these thwarted events occur) it appears that there are dozens of these kinds of student, teacher, and family hero scenarios since Columbine that go unacknowledged in our national consciousness. It sometimes seems that our populous wants to learn after a tragedy occurs but devotes far less effort to understanding how these atrocities have been averted. This hampers our societal learning on how to prevent mass shootings in schools.
Lesson 2: We need to be clear on what to look for. Most of the shooters have been suicidal and homicidal for extended periods of time. The public and media have been trying to frame the cause along one variable (e.g., bullying, mental illness, guns, suicidal behavior, etc.). Its clearly not ONE variable but the combination of variables. The most important one is threat to self and others. This means that the risk signs we normally look for with suicide could be very helpful in deciding what is a real problem. Has he made threats of suicide/homicide? Does he have a plan? Does he have a target group? Does he have a method? Is he obsessed with weapons, firearms, or explosives? Has he communicated verbally or in writing violent tendencies? Does he have a history of mental illness with violent traits? Does he see himself as a victim with many perpetrators around him? Its not one of these questions that determine the ultimate risk, rather the combination of all of them that requires the need for speedy intervention. Creating institutional mechanisms that can examine risk variables across multiple categories is critical in assessing the overall risk. A focus on only one or two variables distorts the level of potential risk. Clearly, at Virginia Tech, the perpetrator had been suicidal and reported by his peers; a stalker and reported by his peers; a violence concern to his professor(s) and reported by the professor. So this was not a failure of the cohort to recognize the overall fear and risk involved. Rather, it was a failure of the system to consider (or be aware of) the multiple risks in combination. Part of the reform will require changes in state and federal laws surrounding privacy in high-risk situations, but schools should also change their procedures to inquire and take into account these other multiple variables rather than focus on only one that is presented at that period of time. Most K-12 schools have already informally moved to this kind of swift assessment since the Columbine murders.
Lesson 3: Understanding this act as a form of national terrorism, personal glorification, and a desire for eternal fame. This understanding is critical if we as a society want to reduce the number of such tragedies. The main motivation shooters have in perpetrating these events in the way that they are done is eternal memory and fame. They also want to strike fear into the hearts of every American for many years to come. This means the country should respond to these events as they would to terrorist acts, acts of suicide, and attempts to destroy our morale. Decades of social science research clearly show that glorification of perpetrators in the media right after an event increases the chances of these events happening in the months and years following a saturation of information on perpetrators in the media. A focus on the victims and the pain caused by the tragedy leads to a decrease in copycat events. The public has a right to know information; however, the guidelines and deliberations on what events to show and how to show them should follow similar guidelines surrounding terrorism and suicide. These kinds of guidelines might be helpful to schools in the way they frame the issue to students and faculty. It may encourage a greater alertness and clarity about the need to respond and inform if similar situations appear in their settings. Over time, this type of response may help in reducing the number of copycat events.
Lesson 4. Pre- and post-crisis planning need to include many citizens. Compared with other countries, the United States has very few members of the public trained in how to help and respond in a crisis. Much of my work has been in Israel where most of the people have training in basic crisis principles and response. Hence, in a crisis the EMTs and police have thousands of civilian helpers and allies to help evacuate, secure perimeters, triage, and everyone knows where to go and how to respond in a timely manner. In the United States, the entire immediate crisis response is professionalized to police officers, firefighters, and a small group of crisis workers. There is no reason that all U.S. high school students and college freshmen cant take basic emergency training courses to increase our national and local capacity to handle disaster events. Clearly, 9/11, the Oklahoma bombing, the many school shootings, Hurricane Katrina, pending earthquakes, and other forms of natural disasters in recent years have shown that our population could be better educated and prepared to be assets in crisis situations. In the same way we educate about CPR or how to use the Heimlich procedure or basic safety classes on riding a bike, or driving a car, we can create short pre-during-post crisis units in health classes (both at the high school and college levels). This would be especially important for schools in high-risk areas (e.g., California with earthquakes). This way our country could have millions of responders rather than populations that feel helpless and are unsure how to respond when the need appears. In the same way that learning CPR and the Heimlich empowers people who learned these skills, basic crisis knowledge could help students feel that they can help and contribute if called upon.