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School Shootings: Ethical & Confidentiality Boundary Issues
10 CEUs School Shootings: Ethical & Confidentiality Boundary Issues

Section 21
Tools for Identifying and Helping “Invisible Kids”
at Risk for School Violence

Question 21 | Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | School Shootings CEU Courses
Social Worker CEU, Psychologist CE, Counselor CEU, MFT CEU

Bender (1999) initially used the term invisible kids to identify the group of kids who were the perpetrators in the random shootings in schools. This term was selected to underscore the fact that these students were generally unknown by many school personnel prior to the shooting incidents because they were not noted for overt behavior problems--externalizing behavior problems--in school. Likewise, teachers were less likely to know these students well because many of these perpetrators tend to be "quiet" or "shy" overall. On the other hand, because these perpetrators seem to be frequently identified as "nerds" or "geeks," other students may bully and pick on them rather than ignore them. Emotionally wounded because of being shunned by other students, these students are essentially invisible to the adults in the school. Further, violence for these invisible kids seems, in some fundamental sense, to be a reaction to their own anonymity. Through an overfly violent act, these invisible kids seem to be demonstrating that they do have power in the school environment and that they will no longer accept a peer-imposed label of "nerd" or "geek."  Numerous other characteristics of invisible kids should be noted. First, all of the perpetrators studied here were White males of average or above average ability, which, in most cases, seems to be unrealized ability. In fact, these students seem to be classic underachievers (i.e., high ability and low motivation for schoolwork). However, when planning the violence, these students have deliberately, expertly, and carefully planned. Next, these students all tended to be victims of bullies rather than bullies themselves--at least initially. Finally, the students are almost totally dissociated from friends and family.  The finding that all the perpetrators were males may not be a mere coincidence. School is often a harsh environment for boys (U. S. Department of Education, 1992), and there is a pervasive lack of male role models in schools, particularly at lower grade levels. Further, in the early years, schools tend to emphasize skills in which girls generally excel (e.g., fine-motor control, sedate behavior, and high levels of language/communication skills). This may lead to early failure on the part of many boys in school settings (U.S. Department of Education, 1992). Clearly, one challenge for educators during the next decade is to find ways to celebrate the behaviors in which boys excel during the early years of schooling, as well as provide more men role models among our nation's educators.

In addition to being overlooked by their peers, many students go unnoticed by teachers as well. "He didn't make much of an impression" (Pressley, 1999), a statement made by a parent who knew T. J. Solomon, seemingly sums up the view of many teachers when asked about these invisible kids. Such anonymity is understandable. These students do not make trips to the principal's office (O'Driscoll, 1999; Paulson, 1999), their school grades are acceptable, they do not belong to the "in" crowd, and they generally do not misbehave. They are simply quiet students who failed to connect with their peers and teachers.

Warning Lists/Profiles: A number of authorities have recommended the use of checklists, warning lists, and/or "profiling" as a means of identifying the invisible kids prior to a school violence incident (APA Help Center, 1999; Dwyer et al., 1998; Lord, 1999; NSSC, 1999). On reflection, these approaches are synonymous. Specifically, the use of warning lists promotes--either formally or informally--the profiling concept; of what use is a warning list, if not as a method to formulate a formal or informal profile of a child in trouble prior to a violent incident? Although this approach seems to be one of the most frequently recommended, it is associated with a number of problems (Lord, 1999).  The warning list/profiling approach has received the knee-jerk support of both the White House and the American Psychological Association, each of which has published a warning list (APA, 1999; Dwyer et al., 1998). The use of warning lists and/or profiling is dependent on teachers' knowledge of the emotional well being of all the students in their class, and teachers are generally effective at observing troubling behavior. The checklist approach has long been used in identification of kids with overt behavioral problems.  However, as noted above, the invisible kids are not likely to display overt behavioral problems in class, and teachers are likely to know these students less well than the eight percenters described above. Thus, these kids are invisible specifically because they do not demonstrate the types of behavior problems that teachers immediately recognize. The proof is in the series of recent violent incidents; in each case, teachers did not recognize problems worthy of any special attention prior to the shooting. A second reason why this approach is so popular is that it is easy in the sense that teachers' time is controlled (i.e., paid for) by the school authorities. Specifically, completing a simple checklist of warning signs or a profile for specific students only takes a few minutes, and proponents of this approach assume teachers will know which kids to select for the profile. Teachers in schools today frequently complete checklists on students' behaviors, and some of those checklists are used to identify both externalizing and internalizing behaviors for children as early as kindergarten. Many popular behavior checklists differentiate externalizing and internalizing behavior problems, but none of the warning lists that have been developed specifically to identify kids who may commit a random shooting have, to date, been constructed to differentiate these students. If correct, the invisible kid hypothesis suggests that this differentiation is critical for warning lists that purport to identify kids who may commit random shootings. Third, because police agencies successfully employ profiling after a criminal act has been committed, some may assume that this approach would work with invisible kids as well. However, school personnel are attempting to identify these invisible kids prior to the commission of a crime. For this purpose, profiling is much more problematic. Kevin Dwyer, president of the National Association of School Psychologists, suggested that some warning lists are ambiguous enough to identify almost any adolescent (Lord, 1999).  Finally, the available warning lists do not make any differentiation between the eight percenters and the invisible kids. For example, on the list published by the White House Conference on School Violence in 1998, several of the indicators mention "shoving and mild aggression" and "discipline problems" (Riley & Reno, 1998). Yet analysis presented in this article suggests just the opposite about the invisible kids. The lack of differentiation between these two groups is highly problematic and would seem to render these warning lists useless. That is, although profiles might help identify severely at-risk, chronically delinquent individuals (the eight percenters), these profiles would not be effective in identifying many of the perpetrators who are committing the random shootings in schools. For this reason, we do not have faith in the existing aforementioned lists and/or profiles in the identification of the invisible kids prior to a violent episode.

Peer Screening: The results of the analyses above suggest that the most effective set of "eyes and ears" in the school building are the students. In every case of random shooting analyzed here, teachers and principals were not notably concerned with the behavior of the perpetrators prior to the shootings, but the other students knew something was not quite right. Students' awareness of (as well as the school authorities' disconnectedness from) the school social structure has been most strongly documented in the recent reports of the Columbine shooting. In interview after interview, the students spoke of the "trench-coat Mafia," the violent writings of the perpetrators, and their isolation from other students within the school. In contrast, when the principal of Columbine was interviewed after the shooting, he indicated that he had not previously heard of the "trench-coat Mafia." Although he did know who the perpetrators were, he reported having no dealings with them. Likewise, the district attorney in Littleton, Colorado, was quoted as saying, "A lot of kids said, `We knew.' The adults didn't. We are not doing a good job listening to our kids" (Cannon et al., 1999). This anecdotal evidence suggests that we need to use the peer group as an identification tool in order to identify these invisible kids.
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Application of a roster rating sociometric scale would allow all kids in a given class some input in the identification of invisible kids (e.g., see Bender, Wayne, Stuck, & Bailey, 1984). On a roster rating, every student in the class rates every other student in the class on one or more statements (e.g., "I would like to sit with this person at lunch") on a Likert-type scale (i.e., 1-5 rating scale ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree). When the scores from every student in the class are tabulated and averaged, the teacher can easily identify the kids who have few friends and, therefore, may be likely candidates for dissociation from others in the school environment.  The roster rating sociometric is fairly standard and has been widely used in schools. This technique could easily be used a few months after the beginning of the school year to identify students with few social contacts. In addition to assisting in the prevention of violence, this would empower teachers to implement formal and informal interventions to assist in the social development of socially isolated children. This method holds promise for violence prevention in schools. However, research on using a sociometric as a violence prevention measure has not been conducted.

Comprehensive Teacher Discussions: Another way to identify invisible kids is to ask teachers in grade-level (or other appropriate) groups to discuss every student at the end of the school year. One secondary school faculty in southern Missouri has begun this largely unstructured practice in an effort to identify students who may be dissociated from the adults at school (Anonymous, personal communication with the senior author, November 1999). At the end of the year, teachers meet in departmental groups and go through their homeroom folders, inquiring about each student's involvement with adults and peers at the school. Toward the end of the year, teachers in every school would know students well enough to answer the question, "Which adult in this school has connected emotionally with this kid this year?" This simple question would allow for multiple teachers to confer and arrive collectively at a conclusion for every student in the school.  The practicality of implementing such discussions may prove somewhat problematic considering teachers' already busy schedules. As one solution, we recommend allocation of some safe school funds for such a screening. Of the millions of dollars that will be spent over the next year on school safety issues, if only 15% could be used to pay teachers for two additional days at the end of the school year to discuss the emotional well-being of all children, the results could potentially lead to more informed educators, better care for our children, and ultimately safer schools. Knowing that this discussion of the emotional development of every student would be an annual event, teachers might also become more cognizant of the students they have failed to notice by midsemester, precisely those kids who are most likely to be invisible. In the case of the southern Missouri high school, the teachers sharing that experience indicated that some students were identified and targeted for additional teacher attention during the coming school year. A caring adult in the school environment who spends time with the invisible kids may be our single most effective school safety measure.

Conclusion: The difficulty of dealing with school shootings, coupled with the emotional trauma on all kids and parents caused by these shootings, makes this an extremely sensitive issue. The immediacy of the need for solutions may cause educators to grab for the nearest, neatest possibilities to identify the students who are committing these acts. However, in this article as well as in our former efforts (Shubert et al., 1999), we suggest caution regarding knee-jerk approaches. We have attempted to demonstrate that the neat, easy solutions, such as bullet-point warning lists or use of the available teacher rating checklists, may not be the most effective manner to identify invisible kids. These methods can identify highly aggressive students (Walker & Sylwester, 1999), and some may identify internalizing students; however, our analysis suggests that the students committing the random shootings addressed here are not behavior-problem--in the traditional sense--kids.  Rather, more reflective effort on the part of teachers, coupled with peer-identification techniques, may be necessary to identify this group of invisible kids. Educators must be proactive and demand that some of the funds spent on school safety efforts be allocated to support educators' time to reflect on the emotional well-being of each student in an effort to identify the children who need some significant adult to reach out to them. In addition to prevention of violence, this effort, if undertaken nationally, could result in numerous other benefits for students in our nation's schools. Perhaps with this more reasoned approach, we can begin to prevent more of the horrifying incidents of random shootings in schools and thus facilitate improved education for all of our children.
- Bender, William N.; Shubert,, Terresa H.; McLaughlin, Phillip J.; Invisible Kids: Preventing School Violence by Identifying Kids in Trouble; Intervention in School & Clinic, Nov2001, Vol. 37 Issue 2, p105

Personal Reflection Exercise #7
The preceding section contained information regarding tools for identifying and helping “invisible kids” at risk for school violence. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

QUESTION 21
According to the U.S. Department of Education, what are three explanations for why rampage school shooters are usually male? Record the letter of the correct answer the Answer Booklet.

 
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