By: Guest Blogger, Stephen R. Sroka, Ph.D., President, Health Education Consultants
Hundreds of people gathered last night to mourn and pray for the victims of Monday’s shooting at Chardon High School in Ohio where three students have died of their injuries and two remain hospitalized. The shooting suspect, 17-year-old T.J. Lane, confessed to police to taking a knife and a .22-caliber pistol into the high school cafeteria and firing 10 rounds at randomly selected students, prosecutors said. No motive has yet been uncovered.
I have spoken in the Chardon community several times over the years. It is a quiet and friendly community. The schools are well run and the students are respectful. From all accounts at this time, the school and community response teams coordinated a textbook example on how to respond to the crisis. Yet, we are still shocked, saddened, and frightened. A community can never be fully prepared for the aftermath of a tragedy like this one. Today, we are better prepared to deal with and prevent school violence than we were in the days of Columbine, but there still is no guarantee that it will not happen in your school. What there are, however, are intelligent alternatives to reduce the risks.
Here are some thoughts on the latest school tragedy in light of working for decades trying to keep schools safe.
Denial is still a huge issue. Often after a school shooting, it is said, “I cannot believe that it can happen in my community.” People have been saying this since Columbine, and they said it again in Chardon. As we know, it can happen anywhere, at any time.
Social media now gives more insights and quicker responses to the tragic events than do authorized officials. But confusion is often created by misinformation, rumors and conflicting information. Reliable sources lag as they sort out the details. Interviews with students, Tweets and Facebook posts often beat the news reporters at their game. Principals hear about violence in their schools from parents who are calling with information that their kids have just texted them. Some said that the killer tweeted with his deadly intentions. There was no Twitter or Facebook in 1999 in Columbine. Today social media can also create problems, but it can be a powerful messenger to prevent and respond to violence.
Bullying is the new hot topic and often is blamed for many of the heinous actions that result in deaths. Some experts today do not see bullying as a cause, but rather as a symptom of a mental health problem. Perhaps depression screening for all students may prove to be more helpful in identifying those at risk of hurting themselves as well as others, but what we really need to do is to put a human face on school safety.
We don’t need more metal detectors, we need more student detectors!
This is done by building relationships. Words can kill, and words can give life. You choose. School safety needs to be built in, not tacked on. Teaching to the heart as well as to the head to reach the whole child, not only academically, but also to the social, mental, emotional, physical and spiritual dimensions, will help build a school and community of respect. Social emotional learning can help students learn in a safe environment. We often say to police officers that you have a more powerful weapon in your heart, than in your holster, to make your school safer.
Having said all of the above, when kindness fails, schools need to be able to respond in the event of a crisis. A plan of action needs to be in place, practiced and proactive. Teachers and students should be trained and allowed to practice lockdown drills. Parents need a low tech and high tech communication system for responding to school emergencies.
Gone are the days of Columbine when police waited for hours to enter the school. Today, police and community emergency response teams are trained for rapid response, to take out the shooter ASAP. Schools need to be prepared to deal with the consequences of violence long after the incident. Grief has no specific timeline for everyone.
Parents, hug your children and tell them that you love them today. Tomorrow may be too late. —Stephen R. Sroka, Ph.D., President, Health Education Consultants
Photo credit: Tony Webster via Flick’r.