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Increasing student resilience in the era of increased suicides and school shootings

The prevention of school shootings must be grounded in the efforts to prevent suicide.

This spring, schools have experienced a profound increase in student suicides and attempts, as well as school shootings. Recognize that as bad as things have been this spring, things are likely to be worse next fall. Contention over race, origin, LGBTQ, and sexual assault/harassment will increase, along with contention over gun control in the context of a focus on school shootings. Schools must be prepared to go into the 2018-19 school year.

Basic Insight

Students who engage in school shootings are suicidal. They are angry at others and want to die. They plan to kill themselves or are hoping for “suicide by a cop.” Arming teachers merely increase the potential their objective of death will be achieved.

The prevention of school shootings must be grounded in the efforts to prevent suicide. The function of contagion must be thoroughly understood. Knowing someone who had died by suicide or seeing news of suicide can actually increase suicide. The same is true of school shootings. We witnessed this contagion effect last spring—and sadly expect it again this fall with the focus on school shootings associated with gun control.

Insight into the impact of trauma on student behavior emerged after primary studies on school shooters. However, look at any threat assessment protocol used by a school and it is quite evident that an underlying basis of concern is that the student has experienced trauma in the past. These students have also suffered a recent significant loss or trigger.

Being bullied is often a component of that trauma and/or can serve as a trigger. The 2002 study on school shooters found that 71% had experienced profound bullying. A more recent article in Pediatrics revealed that students who are bullied are twice as likely to take weapons to school.

However, some caution is warranted in considering these understandings when looking at the circumstances in the Santa Fe shooting. The shooter was suicidal. However, he likely would have passed a threat assessment review. He was a straight “A” student, played football, and came from a secure family. He was angry because a girl he was pursuing, who had told him “no” for months and who had embarrassed him in front of his class. She is reportedly the first one he killed.

The question this raises is whether this foretells an expansion of the students who present a risk of engaging in a school shooting. Do schools now have to be concerned about any student, regardless of the level of underlying risk, who is angry, suicidal, and has easy access to a gun? The likely answer is “yes.” Schools are advised not to rely solely on their threat assessment protocol.

Note that virtually all school shooters are white males. Their anger and perception that no one cares about them is likely being fueled by current social discord and could be fostered by their involvement white nationalist online groups.

Another recent article in Pediatrics identified that the vast majority of youth suicides occur during the school year. This insight alone should lead school leaders to pay greater attention to the quality of the school climate and relationships between staff and students and students with each other.

Consistent findings are that before either a suicide or a school shooting, other others knew or had noticed signs of concern. In most situations, these concerns were not reported. Increasing such reporting is imperative. Research that has looked at the effectiveness of training staff and students to recognize signs of distress that could be associated with suicide ideation has noted that such efforts are effective in increasing knowledge, but this does not generally translate into action.

The evidence is clear that the approach schools are using to seek to reduce and respond to bullying and other hurtful behavior is not achieving positive results. On the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, there has been no decline of student reports of being bullied since 2009. Recent meta-analyses of bullying prevention research found that the programs had marginal to no positive impact, with zero effectiveness at the secondary level

Research documents that school staff overwhelmingly think they are effectively addressing bullying and have effective strategies to respond to the bullying incidents they witness or are reported. The student perspective is that staff are not doing enough and ignore the hurtful incidents they witness.

The vast majority of students do not report hurtful incidents to an adult at school because they think nothing is ever done and therefore it is a waste of time to report, they fear being viewed as a “snitch,” and they think that if they do report this will make things worse. The lack of willingness of students to report bullying incidents is very likely related to their lack of willingness to report other concerns.

The failure of schools to effectively intervene in situations of chronic bullying that were reported or witnessed is, in this author’s opinion, a very significant contributing factor to student suicide. Knowing that if you do reach out for help this will likely not resolve the situation or could make it worse leads to profound feelings of helplessness and hopelessness--which could lead to a decision to die by suicide.

From a long-term perspective, it will be impossible for schools to ensure a safe and welcoming environment for all students without more effectively addressing bullying and other hurtful incidents. However, at this time, it is essential for schools to diligently move forward as best as possible when entering the 2018-19 school year. The following is guidance on research-based, trauma-informed strategies that have a potential of being able to implement rapidly with limited to no cost.

Connections with Staff

On student surveys in Oregon, one in four students report they do not think a school staff member really cares about them and 40% do not feel comfortable talking with a staff member openly and freely about their concerns. If these figures are any where close to the situation in your school, this must rapidly change.

The Making Caring Common project at Harvard Graduate School of Education provides a relationship mapping tool that schools can easily use. Ensure that every student has at least one staff member who has committed to to forming a close relationship with ongoing connections. Students who are at greater risk require more staff mentors.

The Positive Behavior and Interventions and Support program recommended a 5 to 1 ratio between positive comment and negative comment or correction. It is essential this ratio become the expected standard in staff interactions with students.

Increase Student Resilience

Implement school-wide mindfulness practices. Ensure all staff know how to help students who are becoming aggravated de-escalate. Students also need to learn specific strategies they can use for themselves or to help a friend de-escalate.

Teach students how to engage in effective problem solving, especially problem solving when faced with interpersonal relationship challenges. This including understanding the situation and your objectives, identifying and evaluating possible strategies, and evaluating the effectiveness--knowing that your first effort may not be effective.

Regularly engage student in community circles, where they can discuss what is happening in the school environment and general challenges. Fully incorporate a strengths focus and problem solving into these community circles.

Maintain a positive strengths focus. Have your secondary students complete the Character Strengths survey that is on the VIA Institute for Character web site so that they can identify their greatest strengths. Using the free resources from this site, maintain a focus on one character strength every week.

Student Leadership Team

stablish a student leadership team that is diverse and includes student leaders from every social group in the school. Encourage this student leadership team to take up the charge of encouraging acts of kindness. The Random Acts of Kindness web site has some great resources, or simply search “kindness activities, schools.”

Suicide Prevention

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, working with the National School Counselor Association, National Association of School Psychologists, and the Trevor Project have created the Model School District Policy on Suicide Prevention. Review this or other suicide prevention framework to ensure that your school is totally up to date on suicide prevention protocols. Provide “gatekeeper training” to all school staff at the beginning of the school year.

Interventions in Bullying Situations

The biggest concern related to interventions in bullying situations is the fact that in every state an anti-bullying statute has been enacted that encourages an intervention approach based on an alleged violation of the disciplinary code. This approach is exceptionally damaging because it shifts the focus from resolving the situation to a determination of whether to suspend a student. A comprehensive restorative approach would achieve greater effectiveness. However, most schools seek to accomplish this using some form of mediation--which is an exceptionally damaging practice when there is an imbalance of power.

Under federal civil rights regulations, a school’s responsibility in situations of serious or chronic bullying is to take actions that are reasonably calculated to end the harassment, remedy the harm to the target, and correct the hostile environment.

This author has published a book entitled Engage Students to Embrace Civility that outlines an investigation and intervention approach that combines a comprehensive investigation to identify challenges and motivations, a multiple tier system of supports intervention that incorporates resilience strategies, protection strategies for the targeted student, and an approach to ensure accountability, remedy of the harm, and stopping of hurtful behavior by any student who was hurtful and his or her supporters.

Nancy Willard is the Director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age. More comprehensive guidance is on the Embrace Civility in the Digital Age website. She will be presenting a webinar in early August that more fully addresses the issues in this article. More information at: at http://embracecivility.org.