Key Takeaway from Sandy Hook Tragedy

Sandy Hook

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been hearing and reading a lot about the lessons learned from the 2012 attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School. I want to focus on what I believe is the single most important take-away from the tragedy and follow-up report: identifying and attending to the warning signs before we ever get to the point of another school shooting.

The signs are there. They’re always there. In the days, weeks and months following a targeted act of violence, we start to peel back the layers and acknowledge the many signs and missed opportunities. When we notice, assess, and intervene in behaviors that seem “off” or match those we know are indicators of possible mental illness, lack of coping skills, violent ideology, suicide or violence, we are taking action to prevent violence from occurring. We aren’t trying to predict violence, which is extraordinarily difficult. But, by attending to the warning signs and connecting the dots between our experience with an individual and that of others’, we are making great strides toward preventing violence.

The Report of the Office of the Child Advocate on the Shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary provides a multitude of recommendations for doing things differently from now on. We can either heed this advice and take action to create a safer future for our kids or ignore it and suffer the consequences. Which will you choose?

Taking another look at school climate


This morning, I was disheartened to read about two high school runners being disqualified for helping another girl who had fallen, cross the finish line.  According t0 the article, the students violated a high school league rule prohibiting the helping of another student.

I understand that rules are typically put into place for very good reasons, but we may want to take a second look at what this one teaches our youth.  If we want to improve our school climate, we need to look critically at the way things are, and the way they have been.  We need to focus our efforts on changing some of the rules according to what matters most…treating people kindly, helping others, and doing good deeds.

Strike a pose! (with your gun)

Strike a pose with your gun

Huffington Post recently reported that students attending one Nebraska high school will now be able to pose with their guns in senior portraits to be published in their school yearbook. The reasoning is that hunting and other firearms-related sports are a big part of the community and students should be allowed to pose with an object related to their sport or hobby.

Students will not be allowed to point the gun at the camera or brandish the weapon. Photos must be “tasteful”. The school board voted 6-0 to approve the policy change.

Nebraska prohibits guns on school property, yet allows them in their yearbook. Does this condone the use of weapons by teens? Does it model behavior considered inappropriate for a school setting? I’d love to hear your thoughts.  You can email me here.

The Brady Center Comments on School Violence

The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence has worked tirelessly for many years to end gun violence. In an effort to educate parents, schools and communities about the role guns play in school violence, the center has cited the following facts:

  • 68% of school shooters acquired their guns from their own home or that of a relative
  • 1,700,000 children live with unlocked loaded guns
  • 76% of children ages 5-14 know where firearms are kept in the home
  • 4 out of 10 firearm homicides take place in a home
  • 8 out of 10 firearm suicides take place in a home
  • 9 out of 10 unintentional shooting fatalities take place in a home

No one ever intends for anything bad to happen to their child or anyone else’s, but it is easy to overlook some basic safety actions that can save lives. Let’s remind everyone to take precautions when storing guns.

Making Your School Safer With Limited Funds

Making your school safer with limited funds

Those of us who work in schools are intimately familiar with the process of pinching pennies. Educators routinely tap into their personal reserves to provide much-needed supplies for students. They often dig into their own pockets to provide snacks and lunches for students in need. They cover field trip costs without complaint. Educators are accustomed to hearing, “that’s a great idea, but where are we going to get the funding to implement it?”

Making your school safer with limited funds

It is with this reality in mind, that I want to talk about where we invest our limited dollars to help make our schools safer places for our students, staff and parents. There is a lot of talk these days about training staff and students on how to respond in an active shooter situation. I support training and drills. They are paramount to school safety practices. When under duress, we experience physiological symptoms that can render us unable to think quickly, thereby necessitating a conditioned response. I strongly believe drills and response protocols are a critical component of any school, home and workplace safety plan.

But, when we have limited funds and can’t cover all the bases at once, where should we start? Consider this: even though mass violence is on the rise, school shooting attacks remain rare. The chances of your school being involved in one are roughly 1 in 50,000.

However, research shows that a safe and positive school climate fostering communication, relationships and a sense of belonging improves academic performance, reduces risk factors and minimizes problem behaviors. This is something everyone benefits from on a daily basis.

The keys to building positive school climate are getting all staff members on board, implementing positive, asset-building programs and having a process in place to identify students and staff who need social, emotional and psychological assistance. Beyond that, we must facilitate help for individuals who need it so they can rise out of a place of struggle, frustration, anger and depression. It is those very feelings that nearly always precede acts of violence, from bullying to verbal harassment to an after-school fight to a full on attack of the school community. By addressing the needs of individuals with empathy and crafting a plan to resolve the difficulties, we will make our schools much safer for everyone, every day of the year.

Back to School Safety – Don’t Forget About this Hazard

Back to school safety

School is back in session and along with academics, school safety is on the minds of many. While school violence is still quite rare, we hear about it happening more often than we’d like these days. Preventing violence in the first place is paramount, and while we may have our crisis and safety plans in order, we need to give some thought to all of the hazards that can come our way.

Don’t forget about this hazard

It’s not unusual to forget about some of the most common threats to student and staff safety. Have you considered the impact of domestic violence on your school?

A school is a workplace, and domestic violence finds its way into the workplace on a regular basis. You may have an employee who is a victim of domestic violence and you might not even know it. An especially high-risk time for that person, and for those around him or her, is before, during, and after a relationship break-up. Even if the person has moved out of the home to a safe-house or other location, the abuser knows that he or she will likely continue to report to work.

Encourage your staff members to use your Employee Assistance Program and to seek out other sources of support. Be alert to signs of stress, agitation, worry, increased absences and deterioration of work performance. While an employee may not want to disclose much information in such circumstances and is likely to underestimate or downplay the seriousness of the situation, it’s important to let him/her know of your concern and availability. If you have reason to believe the person is in danger, you will need to intervene and discuss your concerns with the employee and your threat assessment team or law enforcement. You must act to protect not only the victim, but others in your workplace as well.

Shooting Tragedy at UCSB

shooting tragedy at UCSB

The tragic news of another shooting has saddened us. As we learn more about the shooter and circumstances, I find myself reflecting on the many similarities between Elliot Rodger and the warning signs of violence I teach in my training. Elliot is said to have held on to a grievance for a very long time. He experienced a sense of what we call “failure of masculinity” that troubled him deeply. He was jealous and resentful and lacked the coping skills to adequately deal with those difficult emotions. He saw himself as an outcast, having friends but never quite fitting in with the “cool kids” while growing up.

A troubling statement about the shooting tragedy at UCSB

You may have heard the following statement made by Janet Napolitano: “This is almost the kind of event that’s impossible to prevent and almost impossible to predict.”  I have to disagree. The Association of Threat Assessment Professionals (ATAP), of which I am a member, issued a statement regarding this unfortunate comment: “As you know, there is a pathway to targeted violence, and while as an Association we don’t claim to be able to predict such events, we believe they are highly preventable when pre-incident indicators are recognized, reported and acted upon. We are not in a position, nor do we have the desire to judge or second-guess the actions related to this incident, but we can certainly work to dispel the misbelief that incidents like these are completely unpreventable. Through continued education and outreach we can hope to influence change, to facilitate action and hopefully reduce the likelihood of future incidents.” I couldn’t agree more.

Knives – the new weapon of choice?

knives - the new weapon of choice?

Suddenly, we are reading and hearing about knife attacks in our schools. While the use of knives to perpetrate violence is not new, this type of violence seems to have jumped onto our radar all at once.

My first thought was, “if there is going to be violence in schools, surely the use of knives can’t inflict the degree of damage that a gun-wielding perpetrator can.”

Or, can it?

I did some research and was stunned to learn that knife wounds to any part of the body can result in rapid loss of consciousness and death. Not only do we need to be concerned about wounds that target the body’s core and internal organs, the reality is that a cut to an arm or leg can sever or injure an artery resulting in grave damage. It would behoove all of us to learn more about how to defend ourselves against this type of injury.

The children are watching!

Marius the giraffeI was so disheartened to learn of the Copenhagen Zoo’s decision to kill and dismember a young giraffe that I could barely read about it. It was difficult to think about it, much less write about it. Then, I found myself thinking about the lessons we could learn from this unfortunate incident.

My understanding is that zoo officials declared that this young giraffe had no place in their very specific breeding program and was taking up a valuable space. Even though other zoos had offered to adopt him, the decision was made to kill him and feed his body to the zoo’s lions….in front of a crowd of onlookers that included children.

What did these children learn? While they may have learned a thing or two about the zoo and its breeding program as zoo officials have stated, it is likely that they took away some undesirable lessons as well. They learned that when someone does not fit, or is unwanted (deemed so subjectively, by other individuals), it is acceptable to rid the world of his presence. They learned that the murder could be acceptably made into a public spectacle. They learned that the body could then be desecrated, in the public eye. We are told that viewing was optional, and children were allowed by the choice of their parents. Have any of those children been traumatized by what they witnessed? How will those parents process this with them? If they chose to allow their children to see this, one might speculate that their views lean toward acceptance of this type of event.

Have we forgotten that children are the ones who will either perpetuate or challenge the status quo? Are we serious when we say we want a less violent society for them to inherit. What are we doing to ensure that?