Probing Question: Can We Reduce the Risk of School Shootings?

UNIVERSITY PARK — In the wake of every school shooting, the nation struggles to make sense of senselessness, asking how and why such tragic violence could occur in places tasked with nurturing and protecting our children.

Is it possible to reduce the risk of deadly violence in our schools?

“Yes,” said Richard Hazler without hesitation, adding, “We actually have already reduced the risk, and we can do more, though we can’t eliminate it entirely.”

Hazler, professor of education and coordinator of the Elementary School Counseling program at Penn State, explains that the essence of any such effort is developing a caring community that looks out for everyone. “For every tragedy that occurs, there are many more potentially violent incidents that were stopped before they happened,” he noted. “But the actions that reduce school shootings don’t make the headlines.

“Every day,” he continued, “students and parents report concerns and people take productive actions. Sometimes these interventions occur early in a child’s troubled life and prevent problems arriving at a terrible point. Other times people respond to adults or children who are making threatening responses so that there can be an intervention. Then there are the positive climate efforts in schools and communities that give quality attention to all concerned. There is certainly more we can do, but much is currently being done.”

Intervening may depend on understanding the signs that someone could become a shooter. Do such signs exist? Said Hazler, “School shooters are nearly always isolated in some way from others, are angry and have a sense of being rejected by peers, adults and society. Lots of people have these feelings at one time or another and do not become school shooters, so these alone do not identify a school shooter from others. Access to guns and a hopeless sense of their situation are other aspects that can move a person to killing others and/or himself.”

Isolation is a particularly difficult factor, Hazler explained. “The greater the degree of isolation, the less feedback a person gets on antisocial ideas. These antisocial ideas then can begin to appear more and more realistic.”

Hazler and his colleague JoLynn Carney frequently collaborate on school counseling research and have consulted with the Secret Service for a report on school violence by the Secret Service Threat Assessment Center. Noted Carney, “Research such as ours and the Secret Service’s has definitely shown that bullying in some way has led the target to want revenge and to play out their aggressions at the one place where much of the bullying occurs — the school.”

Anti-bullying programs are dependent on the definition of bullying, and experts increasingly cite social isolation as a form of bullying with potentially tragic consequences. However, a recent national poll of American adults shows that social isolation is still among the least recognized forms of bullying.

“One of the key things we need to do in families, schools, organizations and society in general,” advised Hazler, “is to step out of our comfort zone and pay more attention to those who are isolated. They don’t appear to bother us like other problem individuals who we give lots of attention, so our tendency is to leave the isolated alone.”

That’s a mistake with potentially dire consequences, Hazler and Carney agree. Said Carney, “Clearly, history has taught us that we need to be better bystanders, and that we need to teach our kids to be better bystanders, knowledgeable enough to be aware of these situations where people are being abused or marginalized, confident enough in their abilities to take appropriate action, and secure in the knowledge that the school system will support their actions because there is a climate or culture of caring for others and not turning our heads when we see others struggling or suffering.”

~Melissa Beattie-Moss

JoLynn Carney is an associate professor of education at Penn State and can be reached at jcarney@psu.edu or 814-863-2404. Richard Hazler is a professor of education at Penn State and can be reached at hazler@psu.edu or 814-863-2415.

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