This series of blogs is excerpted from a chapter of a book that I contributed to. It is being shared here in the hopes that it may help to provide some foundation for ideas in your area. Please excuse the formality of the writing and please note that this series in no way reflects an opinion on how the professionals at Sandy Hook Elementary School handled the situation or preparation. It is my opinion that they likely did everything foreseeable to prevent this tragedy; sadly not everything can be planned against and thus avoided. My hat is off to those lost souls, the first responders and every member of the school’s team. They all did what they could to avoid this tragedy. Many died protecting this nation’s most cherished resource; our children…
Work is far from over just because the assailants and physically injured or murdered victims have been removed. In many ways this is the time when school psychologists, counselors as well as other mental health workers begin work in earnest. While these workers have been active in all the stages of intervention and training, it is after the tragedy that an organized crisis support team is most needed. The possible use of qualified volunteer crisis professionals should be considered and a list of willing professionals should be made, kept updated and regular contact from the coordinator be maintained. Paraprofessionals both paid and volunteer could be utilized to help regulate the flow of individuals needing services as well as a host of other activities from assisting with food, beverage, blankets, seating etc. as needed, will help minimize post incident chaos and help restore a sense of normalcy and order to the situation.
Counseling staff has the responsibility for helping more than students and their families. They need to assist staff and teachers to work through and understand their reactions to the crisis and to help them to understand and deal with the issues of adjusting back to a level as close to their pre-crisis status as possible.
As is to be expected, students and families will have differing needs and issues with adjusting. Parents need to understand children’s reactions to and issues surrounding the violence. Temporary crisis facilities need to be set up to offer these services in the community as soon as possible after the crisis. Ideally these services should be supplied within a day or so of the crisis (Jimmerson, 2001). Here again is where planning can be key. A list of community resources ranging from property owners willing to donate the use of large rooms, auditoriums and other suitable locations in times of crisis as well as a list of likely needed items can help relieve issues often inherent in the aftermath of dangerous events. A plan for quickly accessing these items for distribution and the ability to allocate enough labor for distribution needs to be part of training and planning as well. As Hurricane Katrina has illustrated, simply having stockpiled supplies without a coherent plan for distribution and management leaves little hope that the survivors will get the resources they need in the most critical period after an event. If there are not enough potential volunteers, donated items and locations, funds should be raised and maintained in order to meet the needs. In the author’s opinion fundraising, donations from the community and from manufacturers should be explored prior to seeking funding from the Board of Education, local, state or federal governments.
Shortly after the incident, but after counseling services have been put into practice, victims, families and staff need to be counseled on the reentry of the school environment (Jimmerson & Brock, 2001). This reentry should not take place until after needed repairs from the incident have been completed.
In cases where lethal violence was not used, there is a real need to prepare students, staff, family and the community for the possible return of the student or students who were involved in the crisis (USDE (9), 1998).
Review of Secret Service opinions on prevention strategies being attempted by schools:
Schools have been inundated by offers of “quick fixes” that promise to make schools safer (Tribune News Services, 2000). Unfortunately the Secret Service has determined that many of these suggestions are “unlikely to be helpful” and in some cases could pose a danger. They further warn of becoming over reliant on new prevention methods and promote instead a “skeptical consumer” mindset (Dedman (6), 2000).
Methods that have been suggested include:
•Metal detectors-while metal detectors may find weapons being held by some students, in the cases of school shooters, they usually make no effort to conceal their weapons or their intent.
•SWAT teams-relying on SWAT teams they have found is not necessarily a reliable strategy as most attacks are completed before authorities arrive (USDE (1), 2002; Vossekuil, Reddy & Fein, 2001).
•Profiles-while profiles of those that are in jeopardy may be useful, they are not usually valid for identifying possible school shooters. School shooters have thus far eluded a comprehensive profile (USDE (1), 2002; Dedman (6), 2000). These profiles are usually not specific enough and fail to accurately discern which students may pose a direct threat (USDE (1), 2001). In fact many of the school shooters would not have been identified by the current profiles (Vossekuil, Reddy & Fein, 2001). The dangers of profiles are that they may place labels on children and thus unfairly stigmatize individuals simply because they have different likes (Dedman (6), 2000). Unfortunately, many profiles are based on media reports which can be very unreliable. Some reports from the media have reported that all shooters are white males when in fact at the time of this writing, there have been shooters that were African American, Hispanic, and native Alaskan; there have been female shooters as well (Dedman (6), 2000; Fox, 2001). The author supports the use of profiles and checklists as a means of identifying those who are potentially at risk to be victims or potential perpetrators in order to implement interventions. Children should not however be identified as likely perpetrators nor treated as such; instead general interventions for at risk children should be employed without stigmatization.
•Warning signs-these lists of warning signs may be quite useful at times to detect at risk students but they may be useless in identifying potential school shooters (Dedman (6), 2000). (see profiles above). Checklists (see profiles above).
•Zero tolerance policies-zero tolerance policies may make for good publicity, but they have not been found to be an effective measure towards preventing school shootings (Skiba, Peterson et al, 2001). In fact, in some instances it was the act of being expelled that triggered the attacker to return with a gun and start the attack: see Kip Kinkel, for example (KHOU News, 2000).
•Software designed to compare a student’s actions with past attacks- software designed to evaluate student threats have been found to be useless in identifying school shooters as most shooters rarely make direct threats (Vossekuil, Reddy & Fein, 2001). Many software programs are in fact based not on actual cases but on expert opinions (Dedman (5), 2000).
Researchers recommend principals and teachers follow these principles to improve school climate: 1) listen to children 2) thoroughly investigate children that have come under the attention of administrators (USDE (6), 2000). It is also pointed out that many prevention techniques have been inspired by the Columbine massacre when this incident was an exceptionally rare occurrence (Donohue, Schirade & Ziedenberg, 1998). It may be more effective then to focus techniques on preventing and reducing the “million cases of bad behavior daily in schools (Dedman (6), 2000 Citing Dept. of Education). “
While most responses to shootings have been inductive, the Secret Service recommends investigative deductive approaches (Dedman (6), 2000).
Warren Corson III (Doc Warren) is a counselor and the clinical & executive director of a community counseling agency in central CT (www.docwarren.org).