Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 01 2012

Violent Threats and Helplessness

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 Over the course of a few months, he became dramatically more withdrawn and shut down and stopped socializing with anyone.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.


One Response

  1. Lucas

    It seems there was a pretty big gap between what those mothers thought was going on with their sons, and what you observed on a daily basis as a teacher. I guess maybe they just saw what they wanted to see, or maybe the boys acted very differently at home than at school, but often, it seems one can’t judge a person’s character, and what they may or may not be capable of doing in the future, unless one understands the whole trajectory of the person’s life, or where they are coming from, so to speak. I’m not saying you can’t tell a lot, and maybe all you need to know, from seeing a kid every day, but it’s not the whole perspective, and that extra background and context for the behaviors and attitudes you observe is key, and may not be understood or accurately communicated by the school psychologist or even by the parents, who may be just as concerned, confused, in the dark, and apprehensive as you are. The point is you probably just don’t have enough time to spend with each kid to really ever know exactly what is happening for them, and what might come next. It’s not your fault, it’s just a consequence of the way the system is set up. The old and worn saying is that it takes a village to raise a child, and that seems to be true, in spirit at least, but what happens when the people in that village change each year or so for a kid who moves on to a new set of teachers, classmates, administrators, and in this case, even psychologists? Is it really any great wonder these proverbial villages, our schools, suffer from a sense of helplessness, not only among teachers, but increasingly among students? If the key to deeper understanding between people is trust, and trust takes time, is it really a surprise that understanding is lost when the lives of so many young people today are, almost by design, a string of abrupt changes and goodbyes to last year’s teachers, to friends from an old school, to confidants who move away in our highly mobile society, and ultimately to the sense of place, community, and belonging that is, for a time, lost when radical change takes place in any of our lives? I think the problems you touched on so vividly here are far more profound than even the horribly prescient question of whether you can know if a student is going to bring a gun to school the next day and shoot people. It seems to me that rather than try to predict the future, we ought to try to understand the past, specifically how our society diverged historically from those, past or present, in which it is not even necessary to ask these questions. If so many young people are resorting to violence, the disease is systemic, and is not likely to be cured at the level of a classroom, school, district, or any other level of administration. It demands not just smart, energetic, and innovative people making things progressively better, but a fundamental reframing of cultural priorities. Why is a kid who feels this way even in school, if it makes him want to sing songs about murder? Obviously it is not a healthy place for him, so how does it make any sense for him to be there? Are there other things he could do in the community that would not drive him to fantasize about killing people? We have this weird, knee-jerk reaction in our society where people assume that if something is wrong, it’s because the things we’re already doing aren’t being done well enough, but we rarely ask if, broadly and fundamentally speaking, we’re doing the right things, or if we have the right goals, or if maybe the problem is that we are doing some things too effectively that shouldn’t be done in the first place. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to help students overcome even the most serious problems and succeed by the standards they are expected, for better or for worse, to live up to, but especially if lives are in jeopardy, it would be nice to be able to say, after all else has failed, to a deeply troubled kid who hates school, “I hope you know how much I care about you, and I hate to see you this way, because it seems like you’re totally miserable. So let’s make a time for you to sit down with me, your mother, and [fill in the blank], and talk about other options. I know you’re smart and can understand the concepts we cover in the eighth grade. So we just need to find a way to let you learn that works for you. It may not be here in my classroom, and that’s OK. If we can find a way for you to learn the same things more independently, that’s perfectly fine. You do have options beyond coming here every day, if it makes you this sad and angry. I can still work with you, and maybe one or both of your parents can help, and you can come in before or after school for extra help. There are plenty of kids who don’t go to a regular middle school and still become educated and successful, and maybe you are one of them. And by the way, the same goes for high school. You have alternatives open to you that can be very healthy and constructive. Let’s talk about what they are.”

About this Blog

Middle School

Subscribe to this blog (feed)

March 2012
« Feb   Apr »