It is estimated that approximately 20 percent of Americans have a psychiatric problem. But, it is very difficult to identify a potential school shooter and that's a huge issue. Most people with mental health issues are not any more dangerous or violent than average non-mentally-ill people. Those with the potential for violence do exist, but how do we treat the population of our public schools?
Dr. Carl Bell, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is also the founder of the Institute for the Prevention of Violence. During a Public Radio conversation about the politics and psychology of gun culture in America, Dr. Bell was asked what he would put in place to help alleviate violence in schools.
Here is Bell's answer about pro-social behavior in a social curriculum:
"The infrastructure of dealing with the problem really doesn't exist... The system is broken, broken, broken. The new Freedom Commission report of Bush came out with that. More recently we've been looking at the system. It's been broken. I think what can happen, though, is that regardless of whether a child has a mental illness or not is that we can be more welcoming to children.
"You know the old saying of keep your friends close but your enemies closer? Not that the mental ill are enemies, but rather than stigmatize and shun people because they're a little bit different or a little bit quirky, we should be able to be diverse enough and tolerant enough to welcome people in so that we can keep an eye on them in a loving, close environment instead of castigating them and shunning them...
"That would be having all teachers and all principals and everybody in schools and other places being very clear about nurturing and helping children to transform, teaching children social, emotional skills, letting children know that they are, in fact, connected to a supportive, caring adult, letting children know that they are in a community and they are citizens of this community and they have an obligation to act like they've got some sense.
"We need to have communities with block clubs where neighbors actually spoke to one another and monitored one another's children. You know, a lot of these shootings that have occurred have been by young people, and my metaphor for complex neuropsychiatry is that people under 26 are all gasoline, no brakes and no steering wheel. And so they need the society to be the brakes and the steering wheel, so block clubs and neighbors getting to know one another."
(Michel Martin. "How Would Better Mental Health Care Reduce Gun Violence?" January 23, 2013. and Michel Martin. "The Politics And Psychology Of Gun Culture."
December 17, 2012. National Public Radio)
"And then the whole issue of trying to figure out how to reduce the constant fear that is being promulgated by the media. I mean, you would think that this sort of an incident is every two seconds, because it's all over everywhere.
"And so people get scared. They don't talk to one another. They're afraid of things. Better education, having social and emotional skills in our school system. You know, schools are not just to teach kids technical things about reading and writing and arithmetic. They're there to transform children into being good human beings. So there are things that are being done, actually, but it's just difficult to get them ubiquitous."
A Sensible Non-Lethal Approach
This plan does not scream for gun reform or demand weapons be carried on campus by teachers in the classrooms. It seeks to strike the heart of the issue -- the mentally troubled shooter, be it a student or a parent or an acquaintance. The call for an increase in pro-social behavior for all students and community members, not just the privileged cliques, is also a very effective preventative measure against bullying and the high suicide rate of adolescents.
Who can deny the charge for insuring all kids have sufficient self-worth and for successfully "fitting" them in a social, school system are bad ideas? Young people experience real and severe pressures during their school years. Now, some are simply not accepted and considered "loners" and "outsiders" in their own schools. We laugh about "nerds" and "weirdos" when we really have no idea about the social pressures they endure as unpopular minorities. The same can be said about the less physically attractive and "goth" culture kids. Some kids are actually frightened, confused "wall huggers" in our public schools.
Instead of isolating groups on campus, administrators, teachers, students, and families should create
communicative neighborhoods that stress assistance and real solutions for troubled kids rather than offering them isolation, hatred, and potential bullets.
A public school is comprised of people with every imaginable impediment to learning. The so-called "good kids" receive almost all the positive attention and all of the greater rewards. The other part of the student body is expected to navigate with very little assistance. Is that the best caring environment a community petrified about a potential shooter can muster? It merely perpetuates itself through indifference to the real problem. Kids can become hardened and violent without love and care.
I once heard Nicky Cruz, the gang warlord turned evangelist subject of David Wilkerson's famous 1962 novel, The Cross and the Switchblade, give an inspirational talk. I will never forget something he said about becoming a juvenile delinquent who cared nothing for others and who committed many heinous crimes.
Cruz's Puerto Rican parents practiced brujeria (witchcraft). They mentally abused him, and his mother would call him "Son of Satan." I distinctly remember how Nicky's recounted that his own mother told him as a youngster that "she wished he he had never been born." I considered that happening to me, and I came up with only one conclusion: I wouldn't have cared about anything or anyone in my life.
Yet, when preacher Wilkerson later met Nicky as leader of the Mau-Mau street gang in New York City, he told Cruz that Jesus loved him and would never stop loving him. A shocked Cruz responded by slapping Wilkerson and threatening to kill him. Wilkerson looked Cruz in the face and said that he could cut Wilkerson into a thousand pieces, but every piece would still say Jesus loves him. Wilkerson said that no one can kill love, and that God is love.
That afternoon the preacher showed up at the Mau-Mau's headquarters to repeat his message, and was slapped again by Cruz. Wilkerson just smiled, and then prayed for Nicky. Shortly later, Cruz and some other members of the gang were converted.
Whose Hands Are On the Wheel?
"All gasoline, no brakes, and no steering wheel" -- Dr. Bell's description of youth is on point. Since so many need more attention and guidance at school and at home to assure they develop critical thinking skills that discourage illicit activity, the solution to the problem rests with concerned adults and classmates who are not afraid to immerse themselves in a loving social curriculum.
Remember, all young people begin school as equals -- beautiful, sweet children with futures. But, somewhere along the way, all that changes. The kids are stereotyped, cataloged, and pretty much forced into slots that offer little chance of escape to greater attainment. What do we really understand about how their psychiatric handicaps occur? We speculate about their poor environments and their unfulfilled needs, but we seldom want to "get our hands dirty" by communicating, intervening, and helping those with problems that we somehow feel "normal" children "have risen above."
If we want to be proactive about a child who transforms into a school shooter, we have to close the distance between the rich and poor, the white and the black, the normal and abnormal. Instead of stigmatizing the youth as "troublemakers" and "freaks," we must be obligated to help improve their young lives, not just punish them and expect that discipline alone will create a loving human being.
A teacher with a gun may stop a school shooter from hurting others around him, but he or she does so by taking the life of a kid who most likely didn't "fit in" the context of present school society. Shouldn't we be concerned about why? Perhaps, we should be overwhelming with our kindness and concern before we fire that deadly weapon. No one can kill love.