In the reporting on school shootings, everyone seems to want to discuss warning signs. From Facebook posts to vague comments to strange behaviors, the newspaper articles always seem to suggest that there were clues everyone should have responded to. I keep reading encouragement to “tell someone if you see warning signs.”
While it’s true that you should report those things (please don’t misunderstand me there), none of these reporters seem concerned with what’s going to happen after you pass that strange Twitter comment on to a Trustworthy Adult. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s nearly impossible to use some strange behavior as reason to Do Something about a potential shooter. Seriously, think about it – what is the next step supposed to be? Everyone can Take It Seriously by passing the threat up the chain of command, but no one is going to lock up a kid who hasn’t even done anything yet.
This may be ridiculous bad luck, but had 2 high-threat students in my TFA commitment, so I actually have experienced a fair amount of this process. Those situations were never handled satisfactorily, but I also don’t know how any more could have been done.
The first kid tried to set fire to our school – twice. Over the course of a few months, he became dramatically more withdrawn and shut down and stopped socializing with anyone. He informed a teacher that he was going to bring in a gun and shoot us. He repeatedly drew pictures in class of violent gun scenes. I would try to help him in class, and he’d stare straight ahead and sing songs about murder instead of listening. The kids started making relentless fun of him for being a loner and a loser.
How many more warning signs do you want? None of that is exaggerated. It was all reported and documented. We had a formal Threat Assessment meeting, with mental health professionals, district officials, and teachers, and he was deemed High Threat. He was back in my classroom the next day. He was supposed to get his backpack checked for weapons every morning, but he’d come to school late and there was no communication system that let Admin know they’d missed him. We did find a reason to suspend him for a few days just because it got so scary to have him in classrooms. We had Meetings and there were some angry Do Something confrontations with District, but there was nothing more anyone could actually Do.
He finally got pulled out of school because his mom thought we were picking on him and couldn’t stand all the trouble he was in anymore. I think she home-schooled him until high school.
The second one was less extreme but still creepy. He made some individual threats of violence and liked to draw pictures of himself hurting other students. He was a smart, conniving kid with an obsession with revenge. The school psychologist warned us he was a textbook case of the type of psychological profile likely to commit mass violence – deeply desirous of being part of the community, but with intense social difficulties that caused him to alienate his classmates further the more he tried to fit in. He had this really eerie way of just informing people that he was interested in being violent, saying it in this very matter-of-fact, quiet way.
We ran behavior assessments, implemented every intervention we could, and worked hard to integrate him into the community. We couldn’t get him more psychological help without Mom’s permission, and she refused. Eventually she also got tired of us “always harassing them”, and she took him out of our school too.
What are the options? What more are people supposed to do? Even if you can expel a kid (Policy said we couldn’t), you’re only passing them on to be someone else’s problem. If those kids hadn’t had fed-up mothers, they would have stayed in the school, and who knows what would have happened. Maybe they would have been completely fine, and just big talkers who would never actually act on their threats. Or maybe they would have gone through with the things they said they’d do. Then we would have a bunch of newspaper reporters, scolding us for not Acting On The Warning Signs.
I’d love an answer for what to do. I don’t mean to just be hopeless and negative. But the truth is that hindsight is 20/20, and predicting the future is impossible.