Want safer schools? Listen to the kids

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Jaclyn Corin, Cameron Kasky, and Emma Gonzalez, students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, speak to Ellen DeGeneres about their March 24 rally.

For the 18th time in 2018 a school shooting has rocked a community. For the 18th time this year, the 273rd time since Sandy Hook on Dec. 14, 2012, and Columbine on April 20, 1999, a community is in mourning over killings that seem senseless. Over 150,000 students in 170 schools (according to the Washington Post) have been exposed to these shootings. And yet the signs were there, if we listen.

The Secret Service has done extensive research on school shootings and violence. Their conclusions are very clear, the signs are always there that the person or persons committing the shootings was or were likely to do so.

While I was superintendent in three urban districts, I had regular briefings with principals about the signs of risk and asked them to do the same with teachers. We also encouraged parents to watch for:

  • Changes in behavior and mood, especially anger, withdrawal and depression
  • Changes in relationships like breaking up with girl or boy friends
  • Changes in dress and health care, students moving from currently fashionable or normal teen dress to Gothic, or failing to take care of physical hygiene
  • Changes in school and class attendance
  • Changes in academic performance, excellent students who start failing
  • Concerns about being picked on or bullying. Take these concerns seriously
  • Loss of significant others, including aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends and pets with whom a child is emotionally close.
  • Signs on social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or You Tube among others
  • Feedback from other students.

I can’t tell you how many times students would tell staff about students planning to bring or having weapons in school. I would argue that students are the best metal detectors you can have. The vast majority of students do not like weapons in school. They scare them.

Learning about threats means that staff have to pay attention to talking with and listening to students. For many students, school staff are the only adults who talk with or listen to them. When staff take the time to say, “Hi” or “How you doing?” or “What happened last night?” on a consistent basis, students are more likely to let them know when they’ve seen a student about whom they’re concerned.

In listening to the media coverage of the young man at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., it was very clear that a number of students and staff at the school had seen signs of this coming and took action. Numerous reports had been made to the Broward County Sheriff’s Department. He was expelled. The F.B.I. in Mississippi had even received notice of You Tube social media postings of the young man’s desire to become a school shooter.

It is vital that there be interagency communication among school systems, police and probation departments and health and social agencies to alert those who need to know to danger. State and federal cuts continue to cut mental health services (Florida is near the bottom of the list of states in spending on mental health services). In too many schools and school systems, staff and parents constantly describe the lack of adequate mental health staff and long term care to address students with significant social or mental health problems.

Too often, we hear from officials involved that they had no legal grounds to intervene even when they know of all the signs that a young person may bring a gun to school and shoot. Several states have passed Extreme Risk Restraining laws to provide legal grounds for intervention.

We must also consider our child access laws. We currently have “social host” laws that can hold adults accountable when they provide access to drugs or alcohol to children. We must do the same when adults allow young people access to guns when they should not have them.

Schools can and have done everything possible to prevent school shootings and yet they go on and on and on.

Why was an 18-year-old with multiple red flags allowed to legally buy these weapons, magazines and bullets?

And finally, we must also face the reality that we are the only country in the world that allows unfettered access to the kinds of weapons for which there is no reasonable need, and change our laws. Why does any person not in the military or law enforcement need access to a semi-automatic weapon with multiple magazines which was designed to do only one thing, do severe damage to or kill other human beings?

Nicholas A. Fischer is a former superintendent of schools in New London, Fall River, MA. and Christina Public Schools, DE.

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