In the aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, my heart is heavy with a range of emotions. The news is full of stories depicting heroism and amazing accounts of survival. However, this devastating event causes me to wonder why this keeps happening.
Will violence ever be eliminated? Probably not; we are an imperfect people with personal and relational issues.
In addition to our imperfection, one thing has become clear as I train school bus drivers and teachers across the country in behavior management: Common sense is not always common practice. Statements made after trainings include: "I am going to start greeting all my students at the door with hello," "I am going to stop being so angry and yelling," "I will be more intentional in my interactions with students in the hallways," and, "I will learn my students’ names.”
Having said that, I would like you to put aside any preconceived ideas about school climate, school culture, and school shootings. I would like to encourage you to not let over-familiarity take away the opportunity to see something fresh.
Reports on school shootings, such as William Woodward and Sarah Goodrum's assessment of the 2013 Arapahoe High School shooting in Colorado, identify areas of common concern for schools regarding a proactive approach to school shootings. Those include threat assessments, information sharing, and systems thinking. Each of those components is vitally important to school safety. However, I would like to focus on the third component, systems thinking.
Systems thinking is sometimes also referred to as group think. According to Irving Janis (1972), group think occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because pressures from the group lead to a deterioration of "mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment.” Woodard and Goodrum (2016) state it this way: "The evidence of faulty systems thinking ... included a tendency for group think, a reluctance to reflect on and admit failure, and the minimization of sincere concern."
The “minimization of sincere concern” is a red flag for an unhealthy school culture — a school’s values and beliefs, which then yield the climate in which teachers, adults, administrators, and students interact on a daily basis. We need to guard against this response.
In a University of Northern Colorado magazine article, Goodrum stated that “in a culture of ‘we are fantastic,’ highly invested in achievement, failure can be considered a crisis,” which makes it very difficult for a student to say they are struggling or need emotional support.
9News in Denver aired a segment with a gentleman who emailed after the Parkland shooting, admitting that he was almost a school shooter. This individual, Aaron, talked about how his lack of love was a motivating factor behind his violent and suicidal thoughts as a teenager. However, one family (not knowing his thoughts or mental state at the time) had him visit their home to celebrate who he was. They showed him love, and that he was worth being around.
"If you see someone who looks like they need love, give it to them,” Aaron wrote in the email. “Even a small hug, a word, or a smile could actually save lives."
This is where over-familiarity can come into play, as well as preconceived ideas about how to be proactive in preventing school shootings.
As a population, we have a preconceived idea that our teachers, administrators, transportation personnel, school resource officers, campus monitors, lunch room employees, custodians, secretaries, and every adult in the school system knows how to build relationships, identify struggling students, and de-escalate student behaviors.
Some individuals have these skills mastered. However, it seems now is a good time to re-evaluate those skills.
As school systems we post signs about being kind, stopping bullying, and, in some states, Safe2Tell anonymous reporting systems, but what do those signs mean? What is kind? How do we stop bullying? In what ways can we identify high-risk students and then intervene to provide them the supports they need? What does it mean to connect with a student? Why are classroom expectations and procedures important? How does adult behavior impact our culture and climate?
Something needs to change for the safety and benefit of our students. We need to be reminded that the power of a simple hello is priceless and connecting with students is transformational.