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  • Amy J.L. Baker

The Violence Project: Promoting School Safety

Across the United States, summer is coming to an end and children everywhere are returning to school. They are experiencing the normal combination of trepidation and excitement that accompanies this Fall ritual. They wonder about who their teachers will be and worry that their friends might not be in their classes. They may be excited about their new lunchbox, backpack, and fun school supplies purchased for the occasion. Mixed in with these feelings, however, is something darker that has also become part of the back-to-school rite of passage for children as well as their parents: the worry that they will become victims of a school shooting. Shockingly, we are no longer shocked by mass shootings – even those that take place inside a school building and involve the senseless loss of life of young children. Adding to the national trauma, are some of the measures designed in response such as active shooter drills. According to Peterson and Densley’s work for The Violence Project, “More than half of American teenagers worry about a shooting at their school, and a lifetime of active shooter drills, locker searches, and locked school doors, has engendered in them an overwhelming fear of imminent death” (page 6). In their (2021) book, The Violence Project, Peterson and Densley unpack some of the myths and facts regarding who perpetrates mass shootings and the impact of this terrible blight on our society. According to their extensive research, four factors are present in all individuals who become a mass shooter. The first is exposure to violence and unaddressed childhood trauma. In fact, they argue that, “The worse the crime, the worse the story.” Second, an identifiable crisis point is reached in which pain and suffering overwhelm the individual. The third is access to a script or model from previous mass shootings that can be applied to achieve revenge against the humiliation of life and the persons believed to be the cause of such misery. The fourth is the opportunity to carry out the shooting, including access to weapons and victims. Based on their research, they conclude that, “Mass shootings are not an inevitable fact of American life; they’re preventable” (page 17).

Amid the horror of school shootings, there is cause to hope for a future in which these terrible events are prevented. This does not involve even more “hardening” of schools, which has clearly not worked. At the Psychological Maltreatment Alliance we endorse Peterson and Densley’s more personal and human approach. Like them, we envision a world in which the red flags that someone is in trouble are routinely assessed and acted upon before the damage is done. They describe several “off ramps” along the road to mass shootings. One such off-ramp involves individuals stepping up to act when someone is in trouble, detecting the signs and providing the nurturance and support the individual needs to get them off the terrible path they are on, a path that led to an end to the individual’s pain only through the infliction of tremendous suffering to others. A second off-ramp involves more systematic ways of checking in on people who enter schools through routine trauma screenings, to see if someone is suffering before their pain becomes intolerable. Third, are societal means of acknowledging and addressing gun laws that currently make it far too easy for troubled people to access the means to conduct a mass shooting. A final prevention approach involves teaching children how to avoid the social contagion of violence and hatred in person and especially on-line.

The work of The Violence Project resonates with our work at the Psychological Maltreatment Alliance because at the root of all school shootings is the unaddressed early childhood trauma of the shooter. The effect of early trauma is largely psychological in nature, with impacts that are not yet fully appreciated, limiting opportunities for promising interventions. As noted by Peterson and Densley, “early resolution largely resolves issues.” At the Alliance our mission is to educate and inform a wide range of professionals on the types of harm that come to children from an often misunderstood form of childhood maltreatment. Not as visible as physical abuse, sexual abuse, or physical neglect, psychological maltreatment is an insidious and highly impactful form of maltreatment that is associated with a range of harm for individuals, and was common in the backgrounds of the school shooters. For this reason, we applaud and support their recommendations and we will continue to provide those who work with families with the information and tools they need to take better care of our nation’s schoolchildren.

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