Preventing Student Violence
Brought to you by the Council for Exceptional Children
by Eleanor Guetzloe
On April 20, 1999, the entire population of our country was shocked by the massacre in Littleton, Colo. All across the continent, parents, educators, mental health professionals, and lawmakers are asking, "Why?" and "How can such a thing be prevented?"
The number of murders committed by adolescents in the United States has increased in the last decade from approximately 1,000 to 4,000 each year. In many of these cases, there are certain similarities-situations and factors that are known to be risk factors associated with violent and suicidal behavior.
This is the case with the two young men in Littleton. The killers were social outcasts in their own school, they had been subjected to ridicule and humiliation, one of them was under treatment for depression, they had access to weapons, they had the opportunity for careful planning, and they were intelligent enough to carry out their plan.
To many, the most horrifying part of the murders is the killers' total disregard for the value of a human life--and their apparent enjoyment of the act of killing others (as if they were involved in a violent video game). It has been said that such young people need a complete emotional overhaul--a restructuring of their emotional development.
Of course, the school alone cannot effect these changes. Effective interventions must address the multiple determinants of such behavior including cognition, neurophysiological problems, and physical health as well as factors related to family, peers, school, community, and the greater society. What will be the keys to survival for youngsters such as these (and the rest of us, who may become their victims)?
Prevention and Intervention
The purpose of primary prevention is to reduce the incidence of certain problems in the population, to keep diseases or disorders from occurring (e. g., immunization). Secondary prevention involves the early identification of those who have symptoms of disease or disorder and therapeutic intervention. Tertiary prevention is the treatment of those who are already seriously or chronically ill. Its goal is rehabilitation--enabling an individual to live as useful a life as possible despite some degree of chronic impairment. In this country and at this time, we must address violent and suicidal behavior at all three levels at the same time.
Regardless of the origins of such behavior, the prognosis for chronically violent individuals is generally poor, and provisions must be made for such interventions as imprisonment and incarceration, in addition to programs of rehabilitation. The primary goal of incarceration is to isolate violent individuals to protect the rest of the population. The only hope for many violent offenders lies in changing their thinking, a process that requires a lengthy period of time and total supervision.
In many areas, there are legal provisions for involuntary assessment of those who are in danger of harming themselves or others. Sometimes hospitalization of a depressed, homicidal, or suicidal individual is the only way to prevent a death.
Many of our present efforts in the school are directed toward intervention at the secondary level, such as the following:
- Providing for the physical and psychological safety of all students.
- Ensuring that all students learn the skills necessary for academic and social success.
- Working cooperatively with parents, community agencies, and treatment providers.
- Providing necessary and appropriate training and support for teachers and other personnel.
Primary prevention of violence and suicide consists of such measures as (a) educating the general public about the management and treatment of such behavior; (b) providing for the basic human needs for all; (c) a stringent program of gun control, (d) reducing access to illegal drugs; (e) controlling exposure of the young to media violence; and (f) fostering prosocial behavior in all children. Most of these measures would require societal changes that are beyond the purview of any single institution or community.
What Can We Do Now?
Within the family and school, we must take every threat seriously and report any threats or gestures of suicide or violence to the principal and the parents of any youngsters involved (potential victims as well as perpetrators). We must report threats of illegal activity to the police. We must help to educate the public about (a) warning signs of impending violence, homicide, and suicide; (b) assessment, referral, and treatment of individuals at risk of committing homicide or suicide; and (d) ways to maintain safe environments in the home, school, and community.
We must use strategies that have been proven effective, such as (a) providing early identification, early intervention, appropriate education, and appropriate treatment for children with emotional and behavioral problems; (b) greater involvement of students and parents in the school; (c) behavioral and cognitive-behavioral interventions; (d) including prosocial youngsters in therapeutic groups; (e) involving students in community service projects; (f) providing sufficient and effective mental health professionals in the schools; (g) family therapy; (h) decreasing exposure of children and adolescents to media violence; and (i) reducing the availability of guns and other weapons.
Finally, we must all become more vigilant and more willing to intervene--to get help for individuals at risk and to take the precautions necessary to protect ourselves, our families, and the children and adults with whom we work. This is now everybody's business.