How to address school shootings, violence

Moderated by Rick Badie

Today’s topic focuses on mass shootings in America — which occur frequently and under similar circumstances — and ways society should address them. An Atlanta educator suggests that, since many shooters are school-age students, society should rethink its approach by becoming a community that embraces, listens and show support for those who feel unheard. The companion essay calls for a public health approach to the issue.

Stop hiding in closets

By David Soleil

Imagine you are an 8-year-old student in elementary school.

Your teacher tells you, “Today, we are having a lock-down drill.” She talks in cryptic language, explaining that, if something bad happens at school, she wants everyone to be safe. You practice hiding in the closet with other students, or maybe you have a special cabinet to hide in. One of my friends told me how proud her daughter was about her hiding space in a cabinet for lock down.

This scenario plays out every day in our schools. But what are we really teaching our community?

We are teaching parents, teachers and students to live in constant fear for their lives because “the shooter” is coming. Not since the Cold War’s “Duck and Cover” have we surrounded our children in such an environment of reactive fear.

School shootings are serious and complex issues. There is no single key that can unlock a solution for our communities. I have some perspectives that could be helpful as our communities wrestle with how to address the potential threat of violence.

First, let’s back up.

How does our learning community care for each other? Do we take time to validate the inherent worth and dignity of every person? Strong communities are built upon trust, caring and love. These interpersonal relationships are our community safety net when issues come up. They also take significant time and attention.

It’s much like fundraising in the nonprofit world. The wisdom of fundraising says, “If you are going to ask for money one month each year, you must spend the other 11 months building relationships.” The same thing is true for community building. Invest time building strong, caring relationships that will support the community in times of crisis.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” I would say the same thing in this context — that school shootings are the language of the unheard. Often, school shooters are also students. So let us be intentional that our schools can be “communities that hear.” Consider how your school community can open lines of communication.

Let’s allow students to talk and feel. Let’s allow students to discuss what’s going on in our world without a test, homework assignment, grade or learning outcome. It is very difficult to validate the feelings of students when our predominant message is, “Don’t talk,” and schedules shuffle us from room to room every 50 minutes. Where is the time for a student-in-need to talk, feel, grieve, heal or feel support from peers and community? If we do not make time for this important work, we will continue to hear the tragic “language of the unheard.”

Two years ago, Antoinette Tuff stopped a school shooter who carried an AK-47 and 500 rounds of ammunition in my hometown of Decatur. She didn’t use a gun. She used much more powerful weapons: listening, empathy and love. No one was hurt. No one was killed. She is a living example of the power of love, empathy and nonviolence.

What if we trained every teacher in empathetic communication or nonviolent communication? What if instead of lock-down drills, we had empathy drills? Instead of teaching students to hide in a closet, what if we taught our students and teachers to reach out and help each other when people are sad or hurting? A school shooting may never happen, but community building can happen every day.

The issues of school shootings are as complex as the solutions. However, the question remains for every community in America: Will we literally hide in the closet in reactive fear, or will we create courageous communities of love?

Antoinette Tuff was an individual who stopped a tragedy with love. Imagine a whole school of people like Antoinette. We would never hide in the closet again.

Dave Soleil, founder of the Sudbury School of Atlanta, is a consultant in nonviolence leadership and former chair of the leadership education group for the International Leadership Association.

Mass shootings akin to suicide

By Roland Behm

Mass shootings are not a gun control issue or a mental health issue. Mass shootings, typically murder-suicides, are a public health issue that may best be prevented by considering the part of the equation focused on suicide.

Since 1982, there have been 72 mass killings that have tragically resulted in more than 1,100 dead and wounded. Approximately 70 percent of the perpetrators died at or near the scene of the crime, most by suicide, the remainder killed by law enforcement (in what some term “suicide by cop”). There is no way to diminish the heartbreak of those losses and that what we have been doing is not working. People are dying, families are shattered and communities are devastated. A new approach is required.

Dr. Eric D. Caine, co-director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Suicide in Rochester, N.Y., observes that researchers may be stumped about profiling perpetrators because they are viewing mass shootings through the “homicide lens.” When viewed through the “suicide plus homicide lens,” however, the situation becomes clearer.

Suicide arises from interrelated and overlapping risk factors including, as may be the case with the Roseburg, Ore. shooter, previous suicide attempts. Additional risk factors include health problems (mental and physical), interpersonal violence, a history of trauma, relationship challenges and financial problems, among others. While these risk factors provide a broad understanding of who may be at heightened risk of suicide, each on its own fails to identify which person will attempt suicide.

For example, for any individual diagnosed with major depression, there is a 99 percent chance he or she will not die by suicide. It is more helpful to consider suicide, including gun suicide, as a developmental process where risk and protective factors — factors that buffer risk — contribute to increasing or lessening the risk of suicide over time. In other words, suicide does not typically arise spontaneously.

To help understand the patterns and conditions contributing to gun violence and hence inform prevention efforts, from 1986 to 1996, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sponsored and conducted research. The CDC has not touched gun violence research since 1996, when the National Rifle Association accused the agency of promoting gun control and Congress threatened to strip the agency’s funding.

Ironically, the very person who first proposed banning CDC gun violence research, U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey, had a change of heart following the 2012 Aurora, Colo. massacre. Dickey recognized CDC-funded research was crucial to understanding and preventing gun violence, stating, “The same evidence-based approach that is saving millions of lives from motor-vehicle crashes, as well as from smoking, cancer and HIV/AIDS, can help reduce the toll of deaths and injuries from gun violence.” To date, CDC funding has not been restored.

What does a public health approach look like? An evidence-based public health approach to suicide prevention seeks to impact populations versus individuals. It seeks to answer the question: How can we stem suicide before suicidal thoughts or behaviors occur? It requires a multifaceted approach that addresses the individual, family, community and broader society.

With renewed investment in CDC and other federal agencies, it is possible to implement a robust public health response that can help stem the rising tide of suicide and seek to prevent the horror of another mass shooting.

Roland J. Behm, a suicide prevention advocate, lives in Sandy Springs.


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