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Preventing and Healing from School Violence Takes a Village

Posted on February 19, 2018

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As our nation reels from the devastating event of the school shooting in Florida this week (number 18 in 2018, according to CNBC and other media outlets), it’s easy to point fingers and blame the gun industry for making the guns, law makers for what they are or aren’t doing to control gun access, the perpetrator for his mental health issues and his alleged obsession with guns and knives and death, the leadership of the school, the parents….the list goes on.  

But, as  Dr. Mary Schoenfeldt, renowned expert and author of numerous books on school violence prevention and school violence aftermath, said the media and the blame seekers miss the most vital point. “The perpetrators (of school violence) don’t usually expect to go home. Their actions are a result of suicide ideation. They’ve made a decision to die because it’s easier than living…and while they are out there, they might as well take some others with them. Suicide and violence sometimes become the best option, in the minds of someone in psychic pain. My guess is this young man, like all of the others, had used options to cope until that moment when those options didn’t work anymore.”

Schoenfeldt texted with PsychCentral.com while on her way to the airport. She often arrives within 24 hours of a school shooting to help the school with their trauma response and to work with the survivors and their families.

Schoendfeldt commended the faculty and administration and first responders at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High saying that they had saved many lives because “the school had practiced shelter in place, lock down and coordinated evacuation. Had they not had these systems in place, the death count would have been much higher.”

The media widely reported quotes from the shooter’s classmates and former teachers, who used words to describe him like “weird” and “troubled” or “always in trouble”. The school itself sent out a vague note to teachers asking them to keep an eye on him, before he was expelled from school. Friends and former friends saw him post photos of guns and knives and make comments like “cost me $30” and “my arsenal” on social media. The death of his adoptive mom last November (the second of his parents to die) seemed to be common knowledge among the community. And yet no one seemed to see this coming.

It’s far cry from another event that occurred on Wednesday, when a school violence plan was thwarted in Everett, Washington, because of the actions of a grandmother. The Seattle Times reported that the grandmother called the police after she was alarmed upon reading her 18-year-old grandson’s journal detailing what he learned from other school shootings and how he planned to carry about an attack on his former school, taking pressure bombs and black-powder filled grenades, plus his guitar case holding his semi-automatic rifle to school. (The grandmother looked in the case for the gun and turned that over to police.)

Schoenfeldt said she applauds that grandmother. “School violence is not just a school issue. It is a family and a community issue, where everyone needs to be paying attention to prevent school violence.” Schoenfeldt reminds parents that sometimes kids come home from school and talk about something they witnessed during the day or about a conversation they had with a friend that made them uncomfortable. This may be the child’s way of asking for help or for an intervention, and parents need to read and understand the cues to know when to step in and call the school, another parent, the police or whomever.

In the days that follow, coping skills and the support of community and mental health professionals are essential, not only for recovery from the trauma but also to ensure that this latest event doesn’t serve as an example to other students, like the Everett teen, who might think this is a good way to exact revenge while dying himself.  

PsychCentral.com has a wealth of resources on the politics and psychology of school shootings, school shootings and grief and PTSD, and tips for parents on talking to your children, because in order to prevent further acts and to heal from this one, it will take people feeling connected and communities coming together.

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Author: Jill L. Ferguson, M.A.

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