Listening to Students—When They Make Sense; and Not Listening to Students—When They’re Ready to Kill
I honestly was not planning a Part III to this Series—a Series that was prompted by the tragedy, five weeks ago, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida where 17 souls lost their lives and at least 20 additional students and staff were injured.
But this Part III has become necessary. . . at least, for three reasons.
Reason #1: Listening to Students When They Make Sense
Today (Saturday, March 24), hundreds of thousands of students (with parents, educators, and other community supporters) are rallying—in Washington, DC and across the country—in the “March For Our Lives.”
Here, they are publicly proclaiming that they can no longer trust—with their lives—the adults responsible for their safety and well-being in school or at school events.
But they are also gathering to hold our political leaders accountable for not reasonably and responsibly controlling individuals’ access to weapons of war and mass destruction. Indeed, as discussed in Part I of this Series, since 1990, these weapons have already killed over 180 students and staff in America’s schools in over 190 separate incidents.
And included in this number are two more student deaths (one, the shooter) in a southern Maryland high school just this past week.
But there are other victims.
Critically, an analysis of U.S. Census and Education Department data shows that more than 800,000 students now go to school in a public-school district where a school shooting has taken place.
And the collateral damage here includes the trauma of losing friends and acquaintances forever, the fear that it could happen again, and the anxiety of needing to focus on escape routes rather than square roots.
But the more critical Question is: “Are We Listening to Our Students’ Voices?”
Reason #2: Using Violence Against Students who are Trying to Stop Violence
A week ago, on March 14, and as a prelude to today’s March For Our Lives, tens of thousands of students across the country walked respectfully out of their classrooms—many to organized events—to gather for 17 minutes to:
- Honor the fallen Parkland, FL students and staff;
- Express their frustration with adults and political leaders who have done little to curb gun violence, improve school safety, and address the mental health needs of both students and adults; and
- Talk about the actions needed to prevent it from ever happening again.
Many of these events were supported by educators, parents, and community leaders who seized this as a teachable moment in history and political science.
Many of these events were organized as acts of civic engagement, rather than civil disobedience.
And, many of these events fostered opportunities for students and staff to talk together, to learn from one another, and to elevate the students’ voices to a greater good.
But in Greenbrier, Arkansas, when three students walked out of their high school for 17 minutes to participate in the National Walkout Day and show solidarity for their Parkland peers, they were disciplined.
The discipline, in fact, involved having the students choose between two days of in-school suspension or corporal punishment—two “swats.” As top students, and not wanting to miss classes for two days, the students chose the “swats.”
In a March 16 article and exclusive interview with 17-year-old Wylie Greer from Greenbrier High School [CLICK HERE], Rose Minutaglio wrote:
Greer says gun control has always been an important issue that concerns him. "So many people have died and will continue to die because politicians refuse to act,” he says. Seeing the aftermath of the [Parkland] shooting and the reactions of the high school students emboldened him to stand up. Greer was especially inspired to walk out of school after hearing Parkland survivor Emma González speak publicly about gun control.
“I walked because I have seen the debate around gun control die and get shut down so many times," he says. "People said it would be different after Sandy Hook, and it wasn't. They said it would be different after Pulse, and it wasn't. They say it is going to be different this time, after Parkland, and I want it to be. If walking out brings the debate back to people’s minds, if it keeps the victims of Parkland from dying a second death in our minds, then I am willing to accept any consequences."
Greer says he was initially “scared and nervous” about the pain, but eventually felt resolved. “I understood what had to happen, and was prepared for that,” he says. The three students were each "swatted" twice with a paddle by their dean. Greer was paddled during his sixth period class, and describes it as a "temporary sting" on his thighs that was not "dealt with malice or cruelty." But while the ordeal wasn’t painful, he says, the idea that "violence should be used to intimidate children and young adults into silence disgusts me,” Greer says. “It is barbaric and cruel.”
But—at face value, the “swats” are not the issue. And the Greenbrier punishments were not unique in that hundreds of other students across the country were punished for walking out of class on March 14 (for example, in Downers Grove, Illinois, 1,000 students received one hour of detention for their walk-out).
The issue is that the “educators” (including the Superintendent) in this District chose to value their “discipline code” over the students’ "honor code"--their desire to communicate and participate in a national issue and discussion.
A related issue is that the school acted to suppress their students’ voices and opinions with an act of violence.
And, a corollary issue is that the newest Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) focuses on improving school climate, student involvement, and supportive learning environments as ways to improve school safety, student engagement, and academic proficiency.
The interpretation of these students’ walk-out as a “disciplinary offense,” and the use of corporal punishment clearly contradicts the intent and spirit of ESEA.
What were these “educators” thinking???
A Brief Expanded Discussion on School Climate
Positive school climate is correlated with high levels of school safety and student connected-ness, lower rates of school bullying and discrimination, lower rates of school absences and student delinquency, higher rates of students’ satisfaction with school and life, and higher rates of academic success—especially in English language arts and math.
I have written about the importance of school climate many times over the five-plus years of writing this Blog.
But, today, I want to briefly outline what schools target when they facilitate positive school climates. This is important because, while school climate is evaluated by the students, positive school climate occur when schools explicitly and continuously involve their students.
And when students are not involved in the school climate process (or, they are negatively entangled in it as in Greenbrier, Arkansas)—students may become disengaged, they may not feel safe and protected, and they may not trust the adults who try to reassure them that their interests are important.
Briefly, based on a comprehensive review of the research, the following characteristics occur in schools with positive school climates:
- The students are learning the social, emotional, and behavioral skills—from preschool through high school—that relate to interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional control and coping interactions.
- The student-staff and student-student relationships are anchored by the respect for diversity and individual differences; strengthened by social, emotional, and physical supports; and empowered by collaborative and inclusive interactions.
- Instructional environments are differentiated and geared to student learning and progress; are academically safe and encourage experimentation, risk-taking, and personal growth; and focus on creating independent learners and behavioral self-managers.
- The school—physically, procedurally, and relative to its mission, vision, values, norms, and expectations—is organized to be and, in reality, is physically and emotionally safe and secure for students, staff, and others.
Building and sustaining these characteristics requires “drilling” them down to specific actions and activities with clear and measurable outcomes. But it also takes a collaborative “village” of students, staff, and others working together. And, it takes communication, commitment, trust, and consensus.
It also takes common sense and, for educators, the ability to sometimes let students (especially at the secondary levels) take the lead and determine their own path.
Every school in the country had time to engage their student bodies before the March 14 walk-outs. . . . remember the Parkland tragedy occurred on February 14 !!!
How many schools put their school climates and student relationships at risk when they missed the March 14 opportunity for discussion and debate by responding to their student walk-outs with inflexibility and discipline?
Reason #3: Not Listening to Students when They are Ready to Kill
The last reason for writing this Part III Blog message is that we are not doing a good job at listening to our students who are in need, who are contemplating suicide, or who are planning violence— including the deaths of others as they approach and enter our schools.
But the “job” includes:
- Identifying these students and telling the right people
- Conducting valid threat analyses in less than 24 hours from the time of referral
- Having comprehensively skilled health, mental health, law enforcement, and other related agencies and professionals in and available to our schools who can provide immediate attention to impending situations
- Creating positive and safe school environments that include adults who listening to students, and who teach and reinforce the prosocial student-to-student interactions that prevent the “triggers of violence”
- Involving parents and others in the community as committed and active participants in establishing proactive patterns of listening to our children and youth
But the job also includes understanding how mental health interfaces with violent, dangerous, and self-damaging behavior.
From recent position statements and press releases from the National Association of School Psychologists:
As the nation looks to understand and respond effectively to this tragedy, it is imperative that we stay focused on facts and what we know works to prevent violence and keep our children and youth safe. Particularly important to understand is that the majority of people with mental illness are not violent. There have been frequent reports in the news that the perpetrator had a troubled past, was in treatment for mental health concerns, and that this may have been related to his homicidal behavior. To conclude that the presence of an issue like depression predisposes someone to commit this type of violence perpetuates an incorrect stereotype and maintains a stigma that often creates a reluctance to seek treatment.
Homicidal behaviors are the result of a complex combination and interaction of risk factors that may be environmental, biological, or both. In most cases, the presence of a diagnosable mental illness alone does not predispose someone to extreme or calculated violence. Implying so risks undermining the important efforts to reduce stigma around mental health problems and disabilities, and may discourage individuals and families from seeking appropriate treatment. With appropriate treatment, especially early intervention, people who experience adverse childhood experiences or struggle with mental health issues can lead rich, full, and productive lives. Violence, as seen this week, is related to an interaction of risk factors.
[To address these risk factors, we need to] increase access to comprehensive mental and behavioral health services and supports in schools. Only a fraction of students in need of mental health services actually receive them, and among those that do, the majority access these services in school. Schools are an ideal place both to promote mental wellness and to identify and support students struggling with mental health issues. School-employed mental health professionals, like school psychologists, can help guide school-wide prevention and intervention mental and behavioral health services, provide direct services to students in need of support, help teachers and other school staff understand the warning signs that individuals may be at risk of causing harm to themselves or others, and provide appropriate threat assessments and supports to identified students.
Critically, Congress has heard this part of our students’ pleas.
Included in the federal budget, just passed and signed this past Friday, are the following funds related directly or indirectly to school safety.
According to the Committee on Appropriations, U.S. House of Representatives (March 21), the budget includes:
Department of Justice
- $75M (million) for School Safety Grants
- $10M for the VALOR Initiative (police officer safety and wellness programs)
- $10M for the Police Act grants (active shooter training for police)
- $94M for Youth Mentoring Grants (peer-to-peer mentoring for at-risk youth)
Department of Education
- $90M for school safety national activities that improve students’ safety and well-being during and after the school day (includes the Project SERV Program that provides counseling and referrals for mental health services for schools affected by violent or traumatic crisis0
- $1.1B for Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants that support safe and healthy students, including school mental health services, bullying and harassment prevention, mentoring and school counseling, and training for school personnel
- $20M for Violent Crime and Gun Reduction/Project Safe Neighborhoods (gang enforcement efforts)
- $4M for Gang and Youth Violence education and prevention
Department of Health and Human Services
- $26M for Healthy Transitions to provide grants to states to improve access to mental disorder treatment and support services for young people facing mental health conditions
- $75M to help expand the behavioral health workforce, including in rural and medically under-served areas, and increase access to child and adolescent services
We all know that an unreal number of warnings and warning signs were missed last month in Parkland, FL. This must not occur again.
How can we not understand the anguish, frustration, and fear of the March For Our Lives students when we failed those at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School so dramatically?
In Part I of this three-Blog series, School Shootings: History Keeps Repeating Itself. . . What We Already Know, and What Schools, Staff, and Students Need to Do. . .
. . . I emphasized that, while we need to remember the fallen and mourn our losses, the ultimate school violence goal is to prevent the next act of violence, the next (God forbid) school shooting.
To help attain this goal, I re-reviewed the June 2004 U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education document, The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States.
Analyzing 37 targeted school shootings from 1974 to 2000, this Report discussed the many different motives underlying these atrocities—concluding that most of the investigated shooters had no diagnosed mental health issues.
The Report concluded that there is no single profile of characteristics that can predict a school shooter, to which I added two missing components:
- First, the factors related to school shootings are complex, and the ways to prevent them are layered and comprehensive.
- Second, more focus is needed on school safety, school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management, and the root causes from each past shooting needs to be applied to prevent any future potential events.
In Part II, School Shootings, Comprehensive Prevention, Mandatory (Mental Health) Reporting, and Standardized Threat Assessments. . . What Schools, Staff, and Students Need to Do, and The Help that They Need to Do It . . .
. . . I analyzed existing—largely state—gun control and related laws that are approximating the laws being advocated at the federal level. I did this to demonstrate that we can successfully impact our nation’s laws, because we have already impacted many laws at the state level.
In fact, the Boston Globe estimates that approximately 27,000 of the 38,658 people who died in gun-related deaths in 2016 could saved if every state had the same gun laws as Massachusetts.
This article [CLICK HERE] provided (a) state-by-state statistics on gun-related deaths in 2016, (b) how many lives would have been saved by Massachusetts-like gun laws, (c) how many of seven “common-sense” guns laws each state has enacted, and (d) how to contact each state’s Governor and State Senate and House leader.
But I made two additional recommendations in the Part II Blog:
- To establish laws, similar to existing child abuse laws nationwide, requiring professionals and others to report individuals (including students) suspected of potential school violence.
- To develop and require a standardized threat assessment for any individual reported as immediately above.
Now, in this Blog, I have tried to encourage us to listen to our students’ voices. . . both to help them to feel safer, and to help them be safer.
But there is one more voice that I feel must be heard. . . at least, right now. It is the voice that usually cries out in our inner-city schools. . . but is not often heard. It is the same voice as those from the Parklands, or the Sandy Hooks, or the Columbines, or the Jonesboros. . . but it rarely get the same attention.
I am not trying to cater to people’s emotions today, but to your rationality.
I am not trying to make political statements, but help us face practical realities.
And, I am not trying to live in the past, but I want to help our students live. . . so that they will have a path to establish their futures.
We must listen to our students. . . because they are making sense.
We must listen to our students. . . who are not making sense. . . especially if they are ready to kill.
I hope that this information has been useful to you. I know that we all dedicated to protecting our students, making our schools safe, and addressing the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of those students who are struggling in our midst.
There are school-based solutions, and experienced professionals who can help schools and districts go to the next level of success relative to strengthening school climate and school safety.
Let me know how I can assist you in this charge. I am always available by e-mail or conference call.