Since the tragic Columbine School shooting in Littleton, Colorado in 1999, people have been asking the same questions, “Why did this happen?” “How could it have been prevented?” “Could this happen in our school?” “What can we do to stop the school killings that are occurring nationwide?” The answers to these questions are neither simple nor absolute. School violence affects every person and it will take everyone’s involvement to solve the problem. There are specific, practical steps each of us can take TODAY to minimize the risks to our children and start resolving the problems that are the root of this phenomenon.
What Schools Can Do
Beefed-up security may keep already-dangerous students outside the school building, but this only deals with the symptom of the problem. It is not a lasting solution, nor does it help prevent students from becoming violent. Many schools are doing some of the suggestions listed below, but could be doing more.
- Show zero tolerance for violence. This may result in some foolish pranks being overly punished, but will protect students from real dangers.
- Start anonymous, free tip lines so students and the community can report suspicious activities.
- Set up peer mediation programs within schools.
- Sponsor parent education programs that teach both general parenting skills and those addressing special topics like listening, communication, and problem-solving skills; effective discipline; and how to monitor the influence of the media on children.
- Train school administrators and staff to recognize and effectively respond to violent students. Harsh, disrespectful reactions can escalate revenge cycles. School staff should know the warning signs to look for and never underestimate the validity of any report.
- Train students in conflict negotiation and anger management skills. This is where primary prevention and long-lasting results start.
What Parents Can Do
They may avoid confronting the child out of fear or retribution or be too busy with their own lives to realize a problem was so serious. Sometimes, despite the parents’ best efforts, a child may have problems so severe that long-term intervention doesn’t come quick enough to avert a problem. Usually however, parents can help prevent problems if they have the courage to face them head on.
- Get to know your children: who they are, what they think about, what they like, who their friends are, what their life is like from their perspective. You won’t learn these things by probing, lecturing or criticizing. You will learn all this by really listening and asking nonthreatening questions that invite children to share more about themselves.
- Address the issue of gun safety openly and realistically. Ask whether your children’s friends have guns and whether they are properly secured. Don’t worry about offending an neighbor — your child’s life depends on it! If you own a gun, don’t underestimate a child’s creativity and determination to bypass your security measures. Make it impossible for children to get guns.
- Pay attention to whom and what is influencing your child.
- Know what books, magazines, television shows, movies, computer games, and electronic games your child is using. Invite children to share with you and participate together. Whenever possible, preview demo files or read review articles before purchasing or viewing these items.
- Supervise children’s Internet use. Use a security code that you have to type in, so you know when your children are on-line. Buy screening software if you can’t be present. Monitor websites they create and regularly visit.
- Express concerns by stating family or societal values and the long-term risks of violent influences. Demanding control is sure to escalate any resentment, revenge, or rebellion already brewing. In return, children will simply hide their activities.
- If children don’t agree to stop an activity that concerns you, set time or behavioral guidelines. If they begin to express violent thoughts, statements or actions, they will need to give up that activity.
- Have the courage to get help for children who display more than one of these warning signs:
- Prolonged, extreme depression;
- Violent speech, writings, or actions;
- Constant and/or intense anger
- Withdrawal from family or society that is beyond “normal” shyness, teen privacy or independence;
- Involvement, fascination, or obsession with Satanism, white supremacy or other racism, darkness and evil, or glamorized death, killing, and suicide;
- If children won’t seek help, seek professional advice — and follow it.
- Prolonged, extreme depression;
What Students Can Do
Teenagers have a mini-society that bridges the gap between childhood and adulthood. Their internal gossip rarely reaches adults — even when it should. Adults and teens basically want the same thing: for the teens to become their own persons in a safe environment. If teens and adults can view each other as allies rather than adversaries, they can reach win/win solutions and prevent school violence.
- Tell an adult if you see or hear anything suspicious. If everyone waits for someone else to speak up, it could be too late for everyone. Take the risk — your life and others’ may be at stake.
- Write an anonymous note or call in a tip if you are afraid to speak up or don’t want to seem like a “rat.” It doesn’t matter how the authorities learn about a dangerous person — as long as they do.
- Avoid pranks that even hint at violence or hurting others, especially in a school setting or involving school personnel. These pranks are not funny and they certainly aren’t cool. They can get you into very serious trouble that can haunt you for years to come. It’s just not worth it.
- Don’t participate in closed, judgmental cliques and teasing — they, too, are hate crimes. Many of the school-killing assailants cited repeated teasing and rejection by their peers as one of their motives for revenge. Treat all people with respect, even if they don’t belong to your group. Diversity in life is normal; everyone being clones of the clique leader is inrealistic and unhealthy. If your friends tease someone, be mature and walk away.
What the Community Can Do
Many of us have a tendency to respect people’s privacy too much, to the point that we don’t investigate, question, or report incidents we should. Whether we are a public servant or a community resident, we can be part of the solution:
- Monitor public forums of expression and report any alarming statements/writings that advocate racism, hatred, violence or the use of weapons. We can protect the right to free speech while being responsible for protecting children. Seek a balance.
- Know your neighbors and watch out for their kids. It may be hard to inform them of what you know their child did, but in the child and community’s best interest you must try. If you get a hostile reaction, go directly to a public authority like the police or school administrator.
- Public servants, take all reports seriously. Record every message so you will notice patterns emerging. Pursue investigations until you are absolutely sure there is no further risk. Yes, this is more work, but the community
will hold their public servants accountable for problems that were brought to their attention and brushed aside. It takes less time, paperwork, stress, and grief to prevent a problem than to deal with the aftermath of a tragedy.
When each of us makes a commitment to take action and be part of the solution, our children can get back to the business of getting an education in school, instead of fearing for their lives. Together, we can help them regain a sense of innocence, security, and hope for the future that is every child’s right.
Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is president of Parent’s Toolshop® Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. She has 30+ years experience as a top-rated speaker and parenting expert to the media worldwide, including serving as the Co-Producer and Parenting Expert for the Emmy-nominated Ident-a-Kid television series. She is the author of the award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop® and countless multimedia resources that support and educate parents from diverse backgrounds and needs, and other adults who live or work with children. You can find them at her award-winning website, www.ParentsToolshop.com.
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