by Mark D. Lerner, Ph.D.
Chairman, The National Center for Emotional Wellness
In the aftermath of highly publicized tragedies, we experience a dramatic increase in the frequency of disturbing threats, particularly in our nation's schools and universities. The impact of these threats must not be underestimated. For example, when a bomb threat is telephoned, emailed 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 and police agencies. Ensuring the safety of the school family and preventing further disruption of the educational process is imperative.
Many feelings are generated from observing police comb a school. I recall one principal's description of how traumatized he, his students and staff were after standing outside of the building, for hours, while dogs searched the building. He indicated that when they reentered the school everyone was anxious, hypervigilant and startled by every closing locker.
In speaking with school administrators, we hear of other disturbing threats such as "hit lists" 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 "Everyone will die on February 15th" 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 causes or contributes to the surge of disturbing threats in our nation's schools in the wake of well-publicized tragedies may help to reduce the frequency of this behavior in the future.
The reasons why some students choose to make bomb threats, develop "hit lists," or write threatening graffiti are complex, and ultimately research will help us to understand the relationship between these threats and such variables as domestic violence, sexual abuse, substance abuse, violent interactive computer games, chronic teasing and tormenting, bullying, etc. Following is a theoretical perspective based on three decades of working with children and adolescents, as well as my interpretation of extant literature.
Why is this happening?
There are a significant number of young people who are feeling alone and powerless in our rapidly changing world—a world marked by huge technological advances, communication and information overload, and an expectation of increased productivity. When these individuals observe the tremendous and overwhelming attention following highly publicized dramatic events, many of them identify with the aggressor(s). They fantasize about an opportunity to overcome their feelings of aloneness, inadequacy, weakness and powerlessness. They envision themselves acting-out, and perhaps overcompensate for their uncomfortable feelings. Fortunately, relatively few students act on these violent impulses with significant magnitude. Apparently there is enough impulse control that 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.
In reflecting upon disturbing threats experienced in our schools, we must ask ourselves 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 administration and the professional staff is directly related to the frequency of disturbing threats.
Educators must be careful not to challenge disturbed young people with statements like, "Our school is a safe place and we will not experience the kinds of events that you heard about yesterday...." Such statements may serve to create a double bind—a challenge for these individuals. These words 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. On the other hand, educators that ignore highly publicized tragedies occurring in our schools are missing a critical opportunity to help young people articulate disturbing thoughts and feelings and to learn healthy, more adaptive coping strategies.
What can we do to decrease the frequency of disturbing threats?
If indeed the type of individual(s) 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 extremely alone and scared 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 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 must be enacted that would make bomb threats a felony in all states. In addition to prosecuting perpetrators, these students should face significant school-related consequences, including expulsion. Schools should establish clear policies whereby all lost time due to disturbing threats would have to be made-up. Parents should be held financially responsible for the municipal costs of responding to threats. And the media should 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 must 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.