by Mark D. Lerner, Ph.D.
Chairman, The National Center for Emotional Wellness
Not long ago, we dealt with 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 violence including assaults and gang activity. We are seeing an increase in the frequency of substance abuse, self-mutilation, suicide, and serious injuries and deaths from automobile and bus accidents. We are also contending with new types of violence including terrorist attacks, hostage-taking, snipers, murders, sexual predators, "hit lists," threatening graffiti, bomb scares and real bombs. Following, is a perspective on how we may prevent school violence.
What are the causes of school-based violence?
A wide spectrum of traumatic events are impacting our nation's schools. And, as a consequence, school systems are being charged with the responsibility of responding to school-based crises. In recent years, districts have been scrambling to develop comprehensive crisis response plans. We no longer question if a school will be faced with a tragedy, but when.
Many factors contribute to the causes of school violence. Research is helping us to understand the relationship between violent television programs, movies, music lyrics, text messages, and violent behavior. Additionally, the interactive nature of violent computer and video games is being investigated. We hear about the availability of guns and other weapons and we cannot ignore the data.
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, teased and bullied, and then go on to harm themselves and others. We are seeing the effects of divorce, 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 and a fundamental breakdown in interpersonal, face-to-face communication. There is a changing family structure as well—with a large number of single parent families, grandparents and extended family living in the home.
Today, we are also seeing 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 violent 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 digital and technological world. We are spending less time communicating, teaching and modeling appropriate behavior with our children—we are losing the battle to the proliferation of texting, email, and social media.
At the breakfast table, newspapers and television offer a daily dose of violence. And, at dinner time, our children leave the table or family room, opting for the new era in violent television, video and computer games, and Internet chat rooms. We used to know where our children went when they left our homes. Today, we don't know where they are when they are in their bedrooms!
Far too many 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.
How can we prevent school violence?
Today, our school systems are investing in expanded security forces, the installation of metal detectors and surveillance cameras, hand-held communication devices, "panic buttons," and computer "fire walls." Safety audits are becoming standard operating procedure. Although there are certainly benefits gained from taking these mechanical steps, we must address the root of the problem.
We need to 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. We must invest in the development of "people skills."
Far too often our children hear of disturbing ideas 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 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.
There is one common thread that runs through every violent school tragedy—someone knew something before the event. And "leakage" of critical information was not shared with appropriate personnel. (e.g., teachers, school administrators, the police, etc.)
We must work toward improving communication, through a multimodal approach, in order to prevent violent school tragedies. We can address emotional, cognitive, social, behavioral and physiological factors. 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 of their behaviors/actions cause others to become frustrated and angry. We can teach them to become aware of and to identify negative self-statements - cognitions 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 can model and espouse appropriate moral behavior, set limits and be consistent with our behavior. Ultimately, we can 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 "cool down." We can teach our children to express themselves assertively, to implement relaxation techniques, and to utilize conflict resolution and peer mediation skills. Interestingly, 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.
How can we prevent school violence? We must reach our children when they are very young and invest in developing communication and problem-solving skills. Today, we must view all members of the school family as being "at risk" and become aware of the "early warning signs" to identify individuals who may be at greater risk for engaging in violent behavior.
It is important to understand what factors may be causing school-based tragedies. Ultimately, research will help us to understand the causative variables and the efficacy of specific intervention strategies. 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 crisis management strategies. By reaching our school families early, before, during and in the wake of a crisis, we can ultimately keep members of our school family functioning, reduce the likelihood of ongoing emotional suffering and restore the educational process.