By Anne Collier
The takeaway from all the news coverage of yesterday’s school-shooting tragedy in Chardon, Ohio, mustn’t be that school violence is getting worse or more common. The opposite is actually true. School violence is trending significantly downward (it was down 60% between 1995 and 2005, according to US government figures cited in a paper last year by David Finkelhor of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. As for school shootings, specifically, “the annual probability of any one school experiencing a student-perpetrated homicide is … about 1 in 12,804. In other words, an educator can expect a student to commit a murder at his or her school once every 12,804 years,” according to the Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia.
What happened at Chardon High School is no less painful – for the families of the three students who have died as of this writing and for the young shooter and his family – but what can we, as a society, best take away from this awful event?
So what should the takeaways be?
Here are a few takeaways we might consider as parents and as a society:
* Constructive, not reflexive. Instead of getting caught up in shock and sensationalism or placing blame on any one person, place, or thing – e.g., bullying, a student or his/her parents, the state of schools, violent videogames (as happened after the Columbine shooting), social media, etc. – I suggest we evolve a little bit, take a more productive approach. As technology seems to keep speeding up life and flooding us with information and to demand instant reactions, resist the urge to act reflexively and think – and clear space for our children to think for themselves too. These stories should urge us to look for the truth, at least seek facts, before being consumed with emotion. This is an opportunity to practice (or learn) both media literacy and emotional literacy (more on the latter in a minute).
* Research-based. Base our actions, communication, and policymaking (household, school, state, and federal) on the data. Consider the data I cited above: Does it suggest that new laws or reactive policies are needed to “deal with” increased student violence? Only policies that turn around ineffective past reactions to horrific events, such as zero-tolerance policies. In fact, the social norms research shows that when we educate policymakers, parents, and our children about the facts – e.g., the vast majority of children don’t bully peers or commit violent crimes – that understanding decreases the negative behaviors even more and reduces the possibility of copycat behaviors.
* Colorado’s experience. Build on what has been learned in states that have been through events like this, for example Colorado and Virginia. One of the positive outcomes since the Columbine High shooting in 1999 is a hotline for students, Safe2Tell, where they can anonymously report any threats or threatening comments or behaviors they feel could endanger themselves or peers. The program is one of the recommendations of the Columbine Commission, which “realized that tragedies could be prevented if young people had a way to tell someone what they knew without fearing retaliation,” according to the Safe2Tell.org About page. Students were involved in the program’s development. That’s another key takeaway: When we’re designing programs to help youth, we need to involve them – get the perspective of the supposed beneficiaries of that program.
* Virginia’s experience. So how should schools respond when they get an alert from a student hotline like Safe2Tell? What Virginia learned (from the Youth Violence Project at University of Virginia) is that a school needs to conduct a threat assessment, which “offers a more comprehensive and discerning response … and results in a course of action that is less punitive and disruptive to [the threatening student’s] education than either zero tolerance or profiling approaches.” See how “School C” handled a hypothetical student’s threat on p. 2 of Dr. Dewey Cornell’s paper, “The Virginia Model for Student Threat Assessment.”
* More social-emotional training. Consider implementing social-emotional learning in our schools. Bullying prevention and intervention is vital too, but as a society we’re finding there’s overlap between bullying prevention and SEL (more research on how much of an overlap is needed), and we already known that teaching students (and ourselves) how to recognize and manage their emotions leads to increased academic success, better relationships among peers and between students and teachers, and decreased problem behavior. Examples of evidence-based SEL programs for schools are The Ruler Approach developed at Yale University and the Second Step and Steps to Respect programs developed by Committee for Children in Seattle (more info here).
More on the power of social-emotional learning in physical and emotional violence prevention is emerging quickly right now, at a symposium I’m participating in at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society tied to the launch of the Born This Way Foundation tomorrow. But I want to come back to where I started this post with the help of the Virginia Youth Violence Project:
“Schools are relatively safe, but they are not crime-free and we have an obligation to keep them as safe as possible. To keep schools safe, it is important to recognize what kinds of crimes are likely or unlikely to occur, and to base decisions on facts rather than fears” (from “School Violence Myths” at the University of Virginia).