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

Section 4
Threat Assessment to Prevent School Violence

Question 4 | Test | Table of Contents | School Shootings CEU Courses
Social Worker CEU, Psychologist CE, Counselor CEU, MFT CEU

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In the last section, we discussed the second four of nine popular explanations for school shootings.  These second five explanations are gun availability, violent media, and the copycat effect.

In this section, we will discuss four aspects of how structural secrecy may decrease the likelihood that school shooters will be identified early. These four aspects are privacy, the clean slate, institutional memory loss, and counselor-student confidentiality boundary.

In the wake of school shootings, I have found that it is fairly common for individuals, especially victims’ families, to blame teachers and staff at the school for not observing the risk posed by a certain student.  However, the evidence indicates that in most cases, school staff are in fact not aware of the risk posed by certain students. 

Doug McCafferty, a former administrator at Heath High School, expressed his surprise that Michael Carneal, who we discussed in Section 1, perpetrated such a violent act. McCafferty stated, "There’s about 150 kids who were in the freshman class when the shooting took place.  I probably could have listed 100 before I got to Michael that I thought might have done something."  According to Katherine S. Newman, the issue may not be the care teacher’s take in observing their students.  Newman points to the concept of "structural secrecy" as the primary inhibitory factor in preventing school shooting incidents.

Newman points out that schools possess a lot of information about student's health records, academic progress records, disciplinary histories, understandings of student relationships with peers, and sometimes detailed information about a student’s home life.  However, these tasks are highly segregated in schools.  Information is held by different individuals and departments, and there is little formal structure for sharing this information.

4 Aspects of Structural Secrecy

♦ # 1 - Privacy
According to Newman, a first reason for this structural secrecy is privacy.  School staff refrain from pooling their information out of concern for student’s privacy.  Two different teachers in Michael Carneal’s case knew that he had produced disturbing and violent writings in class, but that information was not shared until after the shooting occurred.  One concern school staff have is "labeling theory," which leads to staff refraining from sharing or recording information out of fear that they will "tag" other students in ways which will influence the way future teachers and bosses treat them.

♦ # 2 - Using a "Clean Slate"
A second reason for structural secrecy in schools is the "clean slate."  The idea of a clean slate refers to the deeply held conviction that students are entitled to a fresh start, even to the point that disciplinary records should not follow students from school to school. This is not to say that no information is shared; In small towns especially, it is inevitable that some information spreads.  However, there is certainly little free exchange of information. 

The central fear of this belief is summed up by Bill Bond, principal at Heath High School  at the time of the shooting.  Bond referred to the hesitancy to share negative information about students by stating, "If you expect behavior problems, you’re gonna find behavior problems."  This clean slate can extend to an impeded flow of information between schools and law enforcement as well.  Eric Harris, one of the shooters at Columbine, had posted threatening material on his web site, which had led to a complaint and police investigation. 

However, although police informed the school they were investigating a student who appeared to be trying to construct a pipe bomb, they did not inform the school whom they were investigating, nor did they give specific information. 

♦ # 3 - Institutional Memory Loss
In addition to privacy and the clean slate, a third reason for structural secrecy proposed by Newman is the idea of institutional memory loss. In brief, if school staff are not required by school policy to track specific information, they usually do not. Disciplinary problems, especially, are often only anecdotally recorded, rather than placed in the child’s permanent record.

Although major disciplinary policies are in fact recorded, this system makes it nearly impossible for a pattern of minor behavior problems to be noticed, especially since anecdotal accompaniments to permanent records are usually discarded at the end of the school year, as it is often illegal to "hold these records over the student’s head" in the following year. 

For example, two different students reported that in middle school, Michael Carneal had "stomped on a fish" in biology class.  No formal record of this incident could be found, and administrators admitted that such an incident would have been within the scope of the individual teacher to deal with.

♦ # 4 - Counselor-Student Confidentiality Boundary
Newman’s fourth important aspect of structural secrecy involves the counselor-student confidentiality boundary.  As we discussed in Section 1, deciding whether the risk posed by a student client is high enough for the duty to protect to supersede client-therapist privilege is a difficult task. As you know, students not assured of confidentiality are unlikely to confide in school counselors at all.

Additionally, Newman points out that the school system provides a prime example of systemic distortion - information that does not relate to an institution’s survival gets filtered out. One administrator, for example, stated that if a child confided he or she was using drugs to a counselor, it would not be of his concern, as long as the student was not using drugs on school grounds. 

Filtering important information to teachers is even more problematic. When Andrew Golden, one of the Westside shooters, saw a school counselor regarding threats he had made to harm himself or others, the information only reached as far as the counselor and one administrator. Teachers who were in a better position to observe Andrew’s behavior were never informed. 

Certainly privacy and confidentiality boundaries are important, and children within the school system should be protected from violations of their privacy. However, as Newman suggests, the great and complicated lengths to which schools go to ensure no inappropriate information is shared may create a dangerous inhibitory process which effectively prevents students at risk from being identified and addressed.

In this section, we have discussed four aspects of how structural secrecy may decrease the likelihood that school shooters will be identified early. These four aspects are privacy, the clean slate, institutional memory loss, and the counselor-student confidentiality boundary.

In the next section we will discuss five aspects of weak or mixed signals that can interfere with the ability to identify children at risk within the school system.  These five aspects are masters of disguise, fragmentation, "just laugh it off," perceived overreactions, and the perception that teachers cannot do anything.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Goodrum, S., Thompson, A. J., Ward, K. C., & Woodward, W. (2018). A case study on threat assessment: Learning critical lessons to prevent school violence. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 5(3), 121–136.

Markey, P. M., Ivory, J. D., Slotter, E. B., Oliver, M. B., & Maglalang, O. (2019). He does not look like video games made him do it: Racial stereotypes and school shootings. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. Advance online publication.

Meloy, J. R., Hoffmann, J., Roshdi, K., & Guldimann, A. (2014). Some warning behaviors discriminate between school shooters and other students of concern. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 1(3), 203–211.

Raitanen, J., & Oksanen, A. (2019). Deep interest in school shootings and online radicalization. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 6(3-4), 159–172.

What are four aspects of how structural secrecy may decrease the likelihood that school shooters will be identified early? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

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