Targeted Violence in Schools

By Linda B. Sheriff, Deputy Director and Olga Acosta Price, Director at the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools  

At our weekly staff meeting on Wednesday, February 14 – Valentine’s Day – we spent considerable time brainstorming ideas for our next blog. Preparing for our presentation at the National Conference for Creating Trauma-Sensitive Schools that upcoming weekend and putting finishing touches on an article about child trauma to be published in March, led us to settle on a focus of trauma-informed school approaches. We asked ourselves if the subject would be fully appreciated without a recent event to underscore the significance of the topic and decided that schools interact with youth who have experienced trauma on a daily basis, so it was important to have a general discussion on the impact stressors have on students and ways schools can effectively respond.

Little did we know that at about the same time a former student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida was shooting former classmates and teachers. Our hearts were heavy when we learned of the incident. How could this happen again?

People have been in the news all week discussing this tragedy from many different angles. Indeed, there is rarely just one factor that can be blamed. Being in a school of public health provides us with yet another perspective, one which is frequently overlooked – that of addressing prevention by examining the underlying causes of stress and trauma and making decisions based on research and evidence.

Because, unfortunately, the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is not an isolated incident and it seems that stories about mass shootings are appearing in the news with greater frequency. But we also need to remember that these are the tragedies that draw national media attention. Although difficult to admit, children all over the U.S. are impacted by gun violence even though their stories are not on the front page of the news. According to a Washington Post analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, an average of 23 children were shot each day somewhere in the United States in 2015. Of the approximately 8,400 shootings, 1,458 were fatal.  Indeed, many public health experts have been calling gun mortality and injury a serious public health issue and there is a movement for the repeal of a 1996 bill that has stifled research on gun safety and ownership. As a believer in the power of research and data-based decisions to establish protocols for prevention and intervention, CHHCS is hopeful that more research on this serious topic will soon be funded.

But we also need to look deeper and understand the circumstances that turn people to violence and explore ways we can improve their environments.  To lessen the risk – as well as the affects – of such incidents, we can doggedly pursue preventive approaches. We need to examine the root causes of anger and volatility that can lead to violent behavior. In addition, we must create systems that will identify those who are at high risk for violence to help decrease the likelihood that they will see such conduct as a viable response to their distress. We need to create cultures of acceptance and inclusion, not alienation, for all students, especially those who are suffering. We need to recognize the signs of trauma and be prepared to provide comfort and reinforce helpful coping strategies. Schools are often on the front lines, offering essential assistance after a tragic event, but they can also be champions for the development of nurturing environments that help prevent such incidents. They can be a place where all youth feel respected and cared for. Although heightened concerns about shootings in schools are completely understandable, studies[1] have shown that youth homicides in schools are actually much less prevalent than in other community settings. Schools typically are, and can continue to be, a safe haven for youth, as well as a support for teachers, staff, and families.

But schools should not feel that they need to do this work alone. Schools and communities need to partner to provide a coordinated safety net of interventions. By connecting with hospitals, mental health providers, government agencies, community organizations, faith communities, businesses and more, a cross-sector culture of caring can be put in place. Numerous experts have contributed to our growing understanding of the power of school connectedness, positive school climates, strong student-teacher relationships, and healthy communities. But what can we learn about the practices and procedures in schools and communities that help ground those relationships that lead to better outcomes?  Maybe we should advocate for more studies on how to foster safe, supportive, and engaging places for kids to thrive? We need to work together to create positive environments, reliable early warning methods, and seamless systems of support in order to start the healing process and help prevent some of these tragic and needless shootings.

[1] Nekvasil, E. K., Cornell, D. G., & Huang, F. L. (2015). Prevalence and offense characteristics of multiple casualty homicides: Are schools at higher risk than other locations?. Psychology of violence, 5(3), 236.

The Center for Health and Health Care in Schools (CHHCS) supports child wellness, positive development, and school success. We do this by promoting collaborative partnerships that bridge health and education in the service of creating a supportive environment. A nonpartisan organization with a strong national reputation in applied research, technical assistance, professional development, applying and translating research, and program evaluation, CHHCS uses a public health lens to apply its expertise in children’s health and education issues to build and sustain equitable environments for children to thrive.