Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


Violence At School

When you deal with situations in schools, do you encounter misperceptions about kids and violence?

Yes and that's why it's important to put the problem in the proper context and dispel the existing myths. There is currently about a one in two million chance of a school-associated violent death. That's extraordinarily rare. When you overlay school-related violent deaths with violent deaths of children everywhere, the chance of a child being killed outside of school is about forty times greater than in school, but the public's perception is quiet different. Polls indicate that most people believe that a school related violent death is likely to happen in their school. Therefore, the first thing to do, as with any problem, is to define it and put it into the proper perspective.

The problem we've had is an over-reaction to the threat of school violence, as seen in the implementation of many "zero-tolerance" policies. The results can be seen regularly in our newspapers and on the evening news, such as the incident in which an honor student was arrested when a kitchen knife was spotted on the floor of her car in the parking lot. It was there because she'd helped someone move over the weekend. She didn't know that it was there and there was no credible threat, but now this young lady has a felony arrest record and may lose her college scholarship. There are also reports of elementary school children being suspended for mumbling things they heard at home. It can be quite bizarre. That's an unintended consequence of not thinking about the long-term implications of such policies. Zero tolerance far too often equates to zero thinking. Each situation has to be handled on a case-by-case basis, and you have to make a reasoned judgment about the probability of danger. Sometimes there's a clear need to suspend a student, but you can't have a draconian response to something that's not a real threat.

The checklist approach to kids [evaluating them in terms of a set of "risk traits"] gets us back to the generic profile. The problem is that you'll get a false positive so many times, which means they'll identify many people as being potentially dangerous who aren't. And even when you have identified a troubled student, the situation can be made worse by treating him/her inappropriately. You don't just kick the problem out of school. You have to take the time to do an evaluation to determine the most appropriate intervention strategies.

Do you find that school officials need to be educated in the development of violence, since there's so much emphasis on the idea that someone can just snap?

Yes, that's a big myth. No one just snaps. That's one of the myths that we try to dispel, both for the workplace and in schools. No one is perfectly normal and content one day, and the next day comes in with guns and bombs and kills and commits multiple homicides and/or suicide. It just doesn't happen. There's generally a long painful devolutionary process, or a downward spiraling that's taking place. Those closest to that individual are able to sense that. They're the ones in the best position to do something about it. Many times the person gives off warning signswe refer to it as leakageand the people around them are in the best position to perceive a problem and seek help. No one just snaps. Many times, what becomes detectable is the withdrawal or an increase in paranoia. In the workplace, over half of these murders end in suicide. That speaks to the level of depression, and depression can be successfully treated. When a company or school engages in the benevolent act of treating troubled employees or troubled students with care, that action sets a positive tone that improves morale and lessens the potential for violence.

What about an obsession with violent entertainment?

That's a factor, but it can be overemphasized. This is a parallel issue to pornography and sex crimes. Some people want to blame pornography for all sex crimes: An individual sees a sexually explicit film and then rapes someone. But it doesn't work that way. The issue is that people with violent tendencies may be drawn to violent pornography because it validates what they want to do.

In a lot of contemporary films, the communicated message is that the hero solves his problems through violence, which often means killing a lot of people. Obviously this is not a good message. The good news is that most of us who view such movies know that's wrong and would never be motivated to act out in such a manner. The problem arises with troubled individuals who may be at risk for violence. There's a good book by Deborah Prothrow-Stith called Deadly Consequences: How Violence is Destroying our Teenage Population. She talks about this issue. She sees the problem as violence without consequences. If the consequences of violence are made known, that tends to weigh against violence being a good alternative. We know, however, that such an approach is less likely to work with the psychopaths among us who cannot empathize with the plight of others and are interested only in self-gratification, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't work to create a better and more civilized environment. Violence in our schools and in our workplaces is not an epidemic about which we need to panic. These are problems that we can address meaningfully and in so doing decrease the potential for tragedy.

Pearl High School (AP)
Pearl High School (AP)

School violence, like workplace violence is not just the school's problem or a company's problem, and therefore neither are the solutions. Educators, parents, students, mental health professionals, law enforcement, and the community at large are all stakeholders. The best chance of minimizing the potential of this type of violence occurs when all of these major groups work together in a solution-generating process. That's what we've got to continue to do.

Too often there's a schism, such as that between law enforcement and mental health. There's prejudice on both sides of the camp. I enjoy bringing these groups together in seminars to get them to interact, because they find out they've got more in common than they realized. No one likes violence. Everyone wants to do the right thing and prevent it, and working together is our best solution.


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