In the wake of school shootings in Kentucky and Florida, a rash of copycat school threats throughout the Ohio Valley left law enforcement and school officials grappling with how to improve security.
A school counseling expert says it’s useful to look at the potential school shootings that did not happen. His research focuses on how schools have successfully averted shooting incidents.
Culture of Dignity
Dr. Jeff Daniels, Chair of West Virginia University’s counseling department, interviewed school personnel and law enforcement officers who were able to prevent imminent school shootings.
Daniels said these schools were all able to disrupt what the FBI refers to as the “code of silence.”
“In schools where there had been a shooting, 81 percent of those schools, the shooter had informed somebody in advance about what he intended to do,” Daniels said. “But the code of silence was that in almost all of those situations nobody came forward and told anybody.”
Daniels said schools that were able to stop shootings all worked diligently to cultivate what he calls “a culture of dignity and respect.”
One school that averted a shooting really stood out, he said. The school had a history of violence but after years of work had become one of the safest schools in its city. Daniels recalled one incident with a troubled student that spoke volumes about how the school had achieved its turnaround.
“The week before I came the student got in another fight and the school resource officer, out of frustration, said, ‘What do you want, me to come and give you a hug every day?’” Daniels said. “Here’s this tough girl, a teenager, and she burst into tears and she said, ‘Yes.’ So the school resource officer was late to my interview because she had to go find this girl and give her a hug.”
Daniels said building a more compassionate culture in schools does not require a lot of resources. But it does take a lot of commitment from faculty and staff to systematically be more invested in informal student engagement.
“And when you do that you can start to understand every student’s baseline behavior,” he said. “When you start to see a change in that behavior, that’s when you can step in and put your arm around them and find out what’s going on.”
No Simple Solutions
Daniels said through his research he’s noticed a tendency throughout society to try to find simple solutions to systemic problems like school shootings. For example, he says, schools spent millions on anti-bullying programs after the Columbine shooting, but to little effect.
“Right now, the simple answer is gun control,” he said. “We don’t have the data on this within this country to know if gun control laws would have prevented some of these shootings.”
Daniels said it’s hard to gauge effectiveness of laws because many are poorly enforced. New gun control laws face significant political obstacles. He hopes to continue researching mass shooting aversion techniques.