Creating solutions to school violence first requires consideration of the cause of the violence itself.
The knee-jerk reaction is to look for a single trigger — to blame guns for being too easy to get, the lack of a cohesive mental health system, disengaged parents, the speed of the first responders and violent video games or movies, alongside many other potential causes.
That’s oversimplifying the problem.
“In trauma, people look for a reason, an easy-to-digest reason, and there is no easy-to-digest reason,” said Dr. Frederick Withum, superintendent of Cumberland Valley School District.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says school assailants tend to follow behavior they see at home or in their neighborhood as well as in movies, television or video games.
There’s no doubt kids can become “neanderthals” when playing certain online games, but the majority know how to revert back to normal life when the game is over, said Chief Christopher Raubenstine of the Silver Spring Township Police Deparment. There’s a difference, perhaps, when the video games become the babysitter for an 8 to 10 year old.
“Most people can understand, but the kid who’s playing it for four hours at a time every day, is he really understanding? It makes you wonder,” he said.
The CDC also points to rejection by a student’s peers and bullying as factors that could contribute to a student becoming violent. This is part of a number of factors the agency identifies as risk factors that are not causes of school violence, but contribute to the likelihood of school-related violence.
These factors include individual factors such as a history of violent victimhood, early aggressive behavior emotional distress, antisocial beliefs and drug, alcohol or tobacco use.
Family situations such as low parental involvement, low parental education or income and low emotional attachment to parents can be as much a risk factor as community traits like diminished economic opportunities and a high level of family disruption.
Finding a solution
In the wake of the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, far-ranging solutions have been offered to address the issue of school violence. Some, like students around the country, have called for stricter gun control laws. Others have looked to visible security measures like metal detectors. Still others recommend arming teachers or having armed security on campus.
The solution, however, isn’t likely to come from one solitary action.
“It’s never, never going to be that simple, and if we keep trying to find simple explanations, we are never going to find a complex solution,” Withum said.
Both Dr. Richard Fry, superintendent of the Big Spring School District, and Withum point to limitations and challenges associated with installing metal detectors.
The rural nature of the Big Spring School District, particularly its high and middle schools, would create a huge choking point as 40 buses drop off students every morning. Between 400 and 500 students would be coming in at the same time in all kinds of weather to create to go through the equivalent of the security line at the airport every single day.
“A lot of times schools that have those are a little more urban with public transportation and walking traffic that it’s more sporadic,” he said.
Bus arrival times could be staggered to prevent a backlog of students entering the building, which itself creates a security issue, Withum said. Correspondingly, students would be sent home at staggered intervals, which creates difficulties for parents when it comes to child care and for the students in upper grades who are involved in school activities or hold an after-school job.
Metal detectors would have to be used every time the building is open, not only at the beginning of the day, to prevent someone intending harm from stashing a weapon for use later, Withum said.
One question the community would have to consider is what the presence of the metal detectors does to the learning environment. Fry said he feels safe when going through those airport protocols, but wondered what a five-year-old child would feel going to school every day through those protocols.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about creating a safe learning environment. We can’t institutionalize our schools to the point that our students are uneasy because of various systems we have in place,” Fry said.
Student Resource Officers like Officer Wes Schmidt, who works in the Cumberland Valley School District, can be key not only to reacting to a problem when it happens but also to identifying potential issues before they erupt in violence.
Schmidt wears a different uniform than the Silver Spring Township Police, and is comfortable with students. More importantly, perhaps, in the long run, they are comfortable with him. They often joke with him when Raubenstine walks the halls with him, saying that he brought the “real cops” along to school.
Schmidt always protests, “I am a real cop.”
That relationship helps Schmidt be able to see areas of potential concern and reach out to the family and the district, Withum said.
The SRO is vital, but it has to be the right person. It’s not the place for someone who is not comfortable around children, and it is not the place to hide someone until they can retire, Raubenstine said.
Big Spring also has an armed SRO on campus each day. Some of the discussions with the board and the community in the coming months will involve potentially expanding the coverage to other buildings and determining what that coverage should be.
“The role of the SRO is to create a respect for law enforcement from our students and a willingness to cooperate and collaborate and work together, but obviously serves as a deterrent as well,” Fry said.
Another key to preventing violence is ensuring open communication with students so they feel comfortable reporting potential issues, Fry said. A district can implement all the systems in the world, but it comes down to students knowing students. Big Spring has an anonymous reporting system that both staff and students are aware of, and use as needed.
“If something is building, our kids let us know. But we need to continue to emphasize that if you hear, you report. Then, we need to stay vigilant to that,” he said. “We are our own best protection.”
Cumberland Valley, too, received timely, reliable, concerned information from its students to help their friends and family members. This open communication between students and adults has been a continual help to the district, Withum said.
“We have to find ways that we can foster that communication with other agencies and other groups in order to best support kids before we even get to the point where someone would consider doing something like this,” he said.
Finding the gap
School administrators, local law enforcement, board members and legislators met with the Pennsylvania director of Homeland Security to talk about school threats recently at a meeting arranged by Rep. Greg Rothman. The officials discussed the gap between identifying someone who may do something foolish, and that student actually doing it. How that gap is addressed is essential.
“That space is where we really need to focus our community efforts in order to intervene and avoid these terrible situations,” Withum said.
A new terroristic threats policy at Cumberland Valley attempts to step into that gap. The policy had been in the works even before Parkland. It requires any student who makes a terroristic threat go through a series of steps with the administration, including an evaluation that helps to stave off further issues by getting the student the assistance they need before something goes too far, Withum said.
Cumberland Valley has also partnered with Laurel Life, an organization specializing in behavioral health services, that can help parents get the insurance they need or work with the insurance company, and then provide counseling services for the student there at the school, eliminating a hurdle for working parents.
Getting to a potential solution to school violence in the post-Parkland era may not be an easy road, but the discussions underway in school districts across the country have continued longer than in the past.
“Parkland is creating far more of a sustained conversation. Maybe it’s not Parkland by itself. Maybe it’s the culminating effect of all of these and Parkland was the tipping point with the students. The conversation is much more robust at every level,” Withum said
School officials are reviewing everything, but those reviews fall short in light of the number of bills on the state and federal level that have been introduced or are expected to be introduced. If a district commits to a certain program, it could be forced to change depending on where the state puts funding, Withum said.
Imagine adding an SRO to every building, or passing legislation that would allow retired police officers to carry a gun in campus. Those options could be a game changer, and must be taken into account as districts go through the post-Parkland reflection process, Withum said.
Yet, these multifaceted approaches are exactly what is needed for a multifaceted problem.
“It is going to require legislative, social, personal, political, financial — all of those things have to come together and we have to decide how we are going to address this,” Withum said.