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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Thoughts on School Shootings

         “I remember my first fight,” Mike tells me. “It was in middle school and I pushed X X against the wall.” It interests me that he remembers the exact first and last names of the kid he aggressed against.
         “Why did you want to hit XX?” I asked.
         “I didn’t want to hit him.”
         “Why were you aggressive against him?” I probed further.
         “He had been bothering me for a long time. Pushing me in the hall. Saying things to me.”
         “So it wasn’t a one time thing, it was continuous and over time.”
         “Yes. And one day we were in the hall on the way to a class we had together and he pushed my arm. I told him to stop. He pushed me again. I told him that if he did it again he would be sorry. As we walked into the classroom, he pushed me again. So I put his arm behind his back and pushed his face up against the chalkboard.”
         “What did the teacher do?”
         “She actually sat there for a little bit, watching. Then it felt as if it was about 4 minutes later that she came over and told me to let him go.”
         “Did you ever aggress against him again?”
         “No, he left me alone after that.”

         I took a nap today and when I woke up I saw that there was a school shooting. My first reaction was sadness. Kids being fearful of being at school. Parents being fearful of their children never returning home from school. All of the parents that wouldn’t get to hug or hold or love on their children again. While the details are still coming in, it appears that a former student who had been expelled went into the school with smoke bombs and a gas mask and shot at students near dismissal time. My second reaction was, “Damn it, why?” And some thoughts congealed into ideas. These are my ideas – you may agree or disagree, and I haven’t found the data to support or refute the theory yet, but roll with me for a few minutes.
         As a graduate student and after I finished my MA in psychology, I worked with a faculty member researching school shootings and interpersonal aggression in schools. What we found at the time (2004) was that there appeared to be a pattern where shootings happened later in the school year. A perusal of the dates of shootings since then seems to group them in March, April, and May (as we had observed earlier) as we found then, but there are also more shootings now and they are more spread apart. Depending upon how we define a “school shooting” influences the numbers (is it an adult doing the shooting or is it students, is it on a campus but not involving students, etc.) but by using a broad definition of a school shooting (shooting that occurs at an educational institution) we can see that there were about 220 in the 20th century. Already in the 21st century we have seen a little over 200 with 7 already occurring in this year.
         After a large-scale school shooting, there is a lot of discussion of gun control and I understand that. People, parents, students, administrators are scared. I understand that. But as a psychologist, my first question is, “But why?” A weapon is a tool used during aggressive assaults, and access to weapons is a problem. But what makes a person (in a shooting by a student at a school) go for a weapon? Why are kids (middle and high school students for the most part) feeling like this is the “way to deal with” how they are feeling?
         We could look at our culture of guns, gun ownership, the ease of getting guns. The idea I came up with as I thought today though went further back than that. A child that feels the urge to aggress may do so even without a weapon available. But what is influencing this urge to aggress? I think we need to go back even further than guns.
For many years we’ve been focusing on bullying prevention programs at schools, but that also brings up the question of how we define bullying (and thus what “zero tolerance policies” at schools are really zero tolerating). In the example I opened with, was Mike being bullied? Some people would say yes, some would say no. Some would say that it’s “kids being annoying kids to other kids.” Is the kid who daily makes fun of your haircut or pushes you in a crowded hallway a bully? Is this consistent stressor to the victim being addressed?
Recently I wrote about overparenting and how parents are doing two things more often these days: 1) they’re pushing their kids to excel in order to be successful adults, and 2) they’re dealing with problems for kids so that the kids don’t have to deal with them. But what happens when my child comes home and tells me that Student X pushes them every day in the hallway? If I’m the parent that fixes things for my child, I call the school, I go in to the school, I try to get them to fix the situation, and I may even call the other kid’s parents. I meet with the principal and the parents of the other child maybe and there’s some discussion of how our children are interacting. People may become angry. But tomorrow I will bet that same Student X will be pushing my child in the hallway between classes. The teachers can’t always be watching and neither can the parents. And if we had to watch every kid that was pushing another kid we’d be watching everyone.
If our kids are consistently experiencing stress from society pushing them to be their best, schools pushing them (think testing), parents pushing them to be their best at school and any outside activities, then college prep, college acceptance, finances, and then we add in stress from consistently being bothered by another particular student (or even multiple students working together), you can see how stress might build up in our kids. If these things have been going on for years, imagine all that stress times the number of years. One might expect a child, an adolescent who is experiencing emotions and hormonal changes they can’t understand or deal effectively with, will lash out - lash out against themselves or others that they perceive to be influencing their stress.
As I mentioned this thought process to Mike, he agreed and said that at an earlier time, kids might have had a fist fight in the hall to act on those aggressive impulses. Now, as parents watch vigilantly for any possible slight against their child, schools are quick to quell physical aggression. This made me wonder – as the number of students bringing weapons to school has increased, has the number of actual physical assaults (without a weapon) decreased? Are fights decreasing? I’m not advocating for our kids fist fighting. But if fights are decreasing, could a physical fight allow for closure to end a child being bothered? Schools are worried about liability and thus don’t allow students to fight, and I 100% understand that. But it made me wonder if there was a relationship between decreasing fights and increasing shootings.
Could we help our kids get to a point where fights and assault aren’t the “options?” I think so. I hope so. One of the things I was thinking about today was helping our kids to learn how to deal more effectively with stress. First we need to recognize that kids are experiencing multiple stressors and that a bothersome or bullying classmate may be one of them. For a long time I think we’ve thought that only adults get “stressed” but we need to recognize that kids and teens are experiencing stress as well. As parents and teachers we need to give them the vocabulary to discuss that and be open to discussing the stress they experience (and not write it off quickly as a “silly childhood thing”).
Second, we need to help them deal with stress they are experiencing. Modeling effective coping strategies. Talking about effective coping strategies. Recognizing that our expectations may be influencing their stress levels and changing our expectations. One thing that I think this will entail is adults looking at themselves, looking at their own stress and stressors, and recognizing that they are stressed as well. How can we decrease our stress, there’s another important question.
Finally, we do need to be working on “what if” strategies with our kids, and we’re already doing a lot of this. Most bullying prevention programs talk about what to do if someone is bothering us. I see many of them that also take a positive psychology approach and build community through focusing on the strengths of our peers and ourselves. My son’s school talks about “bucket filling” and how helping someone or giving them a compliment fills their bucket while saying mean things empties their bucket. What we have to remember though is to be genuine about it – we know when someone is bullshitting to fill our bucket, right? Working on our ability to recognize and deal with the stress we’re experiencing, becoming more resilient, and helping our kids do these things too may help. 

2 comments :

  1. Hello Liz,
    I do believe we should teach our kids how to deal with stress, but I don't think we should expect that stress relief is the single issue that would solve our school shooting crisis. Why can't we have a form of gun control in this country? Studies show that having firearms in the home double the risk of homicide and triple the risk of suicide among all household family members - http://annals.org/aim/fullarticle/1814426/accessibility-firearms-risk-suicide-homicide-victimization-among-household-members-systematic. It seems that access to guns is one of the primary determinants of someone using a gun to kill someone else. While I think stress relief can be another tool in our belt to help deescalate a potentially catastrophic situation, I don't think it is the only tool we should consider. In addition, I would suggest that because we refuse to implement ideas, like stress relief, or address gun prevalence as a society, I would say that we are all complicit in each one of these tragic school shootings. Welcome to the new norm. If you wish to reply to my post, I wish you would take a moment of silence and consider that this post is still to fresh for me. I need some time to grieve.

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    1. Adam:
      I definitely agree that access to guns is problematic and the data about the presence of a weapon in a home speaks for itself. One thing I was thinking of though, is what of the kids who have access to a gun at home but don't use it, what's the difference there? What makes some kids use a weapon while others (who also have access) do not?

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