Two decades ago, Americans hoped the slaughter of students at Columbine High School would prove to be a horrible aberration, an event provoked by some bizarre confluence of causes unlikely to be repeated.
Tragically, we now know better. School shootings in America have proved maddeningly difficult to predict — and just as maddeningly difficult to prevent. There’s no widely accepted profile of the young person likely to emerge as a shooter. Law enforcement authorities say attackers have been male and female, high academic achievers and laggards, loners and popular students. Some made threats, others didn’t. Some showed symptoms of mental illness or were under psychiatric care, others didn’t and weren’t. This final variable can be misleading; the vast majority of people with mental illness pose no threat.
Chilling fact: In the vast majority of school attacks, someone was aware of what the student was thinking or planning. But many of those who suspected a proclivity for violence didn’t alert authorities.
Why not? One reason is that this is a distressing judgment call. People fear that reporting suspicions may start a database entry that marks a child for life. They hesitate to interfere in parental or teacher responsibilities. These troubled students generally aren’t criminals lurking in the shadows, after all. They’re teens with teenage problems, often exhibiting typical teenage angst. Some are abruptly withdrawn, others crave attention — two passages of adolescence that many of us traveled.
The question, then, that confronts adults and fellow students: Which young people are potentially, perhaps imminently, dangerous to themselves or others and which ones are … just negotiating the often tumultuous teenage years?
But there are smart ways to approach that ambiguity.
In a just-released report on school safety, the U.S. Secret Service recommends that schools create “threat teams” that can include teachers, coaches, guidance counselors, mental health and law enforcement professionals. The aim of this group enterprise: “to identify students of concern, assess their risk for engaging in violence or other harmful activities, and identify intervention strategies to manage that risk.”
Instead of only focusing on the student’s personality or school performance the teams would, for instance, flag threatening social media posts, texting or other troubling communications. The teams also could try to determine a student’s access to weapons or explosives.
The threshold to intervene should be “relatively low,” before dangerous behavior escalates, the Secret Service says: “It is much easier to intervene when the concern is related to a student’s struggle to overcome personal setbacks, such as a romantic breakup, than when there are concerns about threats posed to others.”
Many people may consider calling the police an extreme response. Not really. But calling a school’s threat assessment team should be easier. Schools that set up these teams — and many already have — should ensure that not just students and parents, but everyone in the community knows they can confidentially air suspicions about a student. The flip side is that local educators, trained to spot trouble and intervene, have to handle these cases tactfully (or squander the school community’s trust).
Students should be reminded, again and again, that it’s safe to speak up to prevent an attack. That this is not snitching or ratting or narc-ing but possibly helping a classmate who is struggling.
And adults who deal with young people? Yes, it may be awkward to report a suspicion about a child you know. But that act could save the lives of many other schoolchildren you’ve never met.
So err on the side of reporting. You never know when you’re not the first person, but the third, to voice a concern. Warning signals flash yellow before red.
This editorial was written by the staff of the Chicago Tribune. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.