Is It Beyond Our Power to Prevent School Shootings?

Just yesterday at the time of this writing, the article, “The Futility of Trying to Prevent More School Shootings in America,” by Barbara Bradley Haggerty was published in the national magazine The Atlantic. The article makes for somber reading. It starts off with the stage setting sentence: “As long as there is easy access to guns, there’s no way parents, teachers, and other specialists can thwart every violent teenager.”

So much for instant solutions, easy reassurance that we all wish we could hear, hang on to and quell our personal and national unease over this issue that is turning into the fearful acknowledgment something is really profoundly wrong in our land of gun culture.

Any of us who are old enough to have been of a sentient and aware age before 1999 and the Columbine massacre in Colorado, know that “it wasn’t always like this” at all. How did we get here? How could this kind of deadly, terrible social contagion have taken over the lives of students in schools?

My last child, a graduating high school son, told me yesterday that it was just this past week that he realized “this was not normal.” He meant in his 17 years he had come as a teenager to think and take for granted that school shootings have always been with us. As much as he and I have conversed about this in the last two years or so, I had not realized this was his basic abiding view of the phenomenon. I was quietly floored.

My writing style in my blogs’ post is to try to have an outside reference for the reader. Sometimes this reflects the stimulus for that post. But always it offers the reader a more authoritative source than my humble opinions, thoughts or analyses. The article referenced above is so comprehensive, informative and well done, that I cannot offer much to add to it.

I will add the comment that this article is what has long been needed in the public discussion, often bordering on political hysteria that has dominated the discourse on school shootings, gun rights, the gun culture, the Second Amendment debates, all of which I have viewed as not only not productive but masking the complexity of social cancer that faces us now. Like the problem of cancer, there will no one cure, no one cause, no simple approach, no quick resolution. Many more will die from this social cancer before this phenomenon begins to lessen. And like cancer, there will be myriads of contributory causes from all conceivable quarters ranging from commerce (the sale of guns), strongly held personal beliefs (I have to defend mine from ever-present lurking threats that have a minuscule chance of accosting me), social customs and legends (the American Cowboy, soldier etc. with their lever action carbine, AR-15) and on and on.

Years ago, problems had simple unitary causes. A car’s carburation was simple and easily fixed by any shade tree home mechanic. Then electronic fuel injection arrived and everything became complex with so many possible sites of error that simplicity was lost forever.

The intelligentsia has long accepted the principle of the complexity of causes. The more educated one was, the easier it was to cognitively juggle and work with staggering multiplicities of causes and effects. A straight line from cause to effect with all its reassuring predictability became a thing of history. The “elites,” the pointy-headed intellectuals” of Spiro Agnew’s hate filled nomenclature could see the realities of social conditions, historical tides over decades or centuries resulting in vast populaces incorporating deleterious social impediments. The social conservatives persisted in seeing simply effects as personal faults and shortcomings. The poor were lazy, stupid and their station was their curse and their own fault.

We see the mythology of simple, fault driven causation still driving the discussion regarding the riddle of school shootings. Causes that are casually, angrily and dogmatically thrown around again include: violent video games, Ritalin, abortion, not attending church and being “unchurched,” radical politics, abortion, the rise of women’s rights, the erosion of the family farm, not enough guns, too many guns, abolition of prayer in schools, too much free speech, television cartoons, declining reverence for authority, left wing politics, right wing politics, the constant 24 hour news bombardment, social media of all forms, the ubiquity of cell phones, decline of reading, too much sex in public media, AIDS, creeping socialism, erosion of parental authority, kids having too much money and on and on.

The concept of the easily identified villain has taken yet another large hit in the world of analysis of the school shooter. Most of the shooters are not psychotic, though a few indeed have been and make up a category of these individuals. They are not terrorists. They do not look so weird that they can be easily identified ahead of the commission of their deadly rampages. Mostly they are teens with the usual wrenching travails of that awful developmental period of life known as adolescence.

Some plan their deeds far ahead of time. They keep their intentions secret from even their families. They spiral into attitudes that are so far removed from social reality that they become trapped by them. Others act very impulsively. Some are triggered by the buffetings of being a teenager such as being jilter, being bullied, failing at academics. Some are socially lonely and more or less isolated. Other shooters are socially gregarious and have full relationships at school and in the community.

Nothing serves to facilitate reliable “early identification.” No single behavioral, social, emotional, psychiatric, or academic trait serves as a reliable marker or diagnostic indicator.

One productive avenue of intervention has been highlighted again, and that is the school-based mental health clinic. One excellent such example was just recently publicized, and ironically, it is in Texas. The article, “After Santa Fe shooting, Gov. Greg Abbott sees a West Texas mental health program as a statewide model,” by Marissa Evans,publishedd May 19, 201,8 in the Texas Tribune describes a well done example of what is needed.

This is not a novel concept. I had a community child psychiatry training experience some 45 years ago (!) in a school mental health clinic as a child psychiatric fellow. I went once a week for a half day. I interviewed middle school students and performed evaluations, I consulted with the school-based mental staff of psychiatric social workers, certified counselors and a Ph.D. school psychologist. We worked as a team. Referrals were made if treatment called for more intensive work than the school-based personnel could deliver. We consulted with parents at every step of the process.

But with the rising tide of cutting services and taxes and revenues, the suspicion of “social services,” that overtook this country largely beginning in the 1980’s, these services were lost nationwide. And where I trained and participated in this enlightened state of service delivery, the climate was extremely receptive and supportive of such services. But school-based clinics came to be seen as an invasion of families’ rights, purveyors of birth control and the sexual revolution.  The paranoia about vaccines also became intertwined with the abolition of school-based mental health services.

So this is my analysis of the school shooting mess. We removed an incredibly valuable resource that could have helped on a preventive and healthy interventional basis with this current social infection in the site of generation and operation of this infection, the schools.

This is the one area in which resources can be mobilized in a concerted effort nationally. This perhaps more than any other current measure, can be expected to help. All the hysterical debate then could start to subside as the incidence of these events would hopefully come down with time. Troubled youth could be helped, their peers would be more socially prepared to identify them, much as impaired professionals started to be identified when their peers realized that keeping quiet was harmful.

In closing, if one wishes to focus reparative efforts in a quarter that likely could help more than any of the current nonsensical discourse from all sides, the need for school-based clinics with adequate staffing, appears to this humble blowhard to be our current best bet for productive change.


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