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In the last section, we 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 this 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.
However, administrators who dealt with Mitchell recall a respectful boy who was truly remorseful for his actions, and willing to atone for his misbehavior. As you know, it is widely accepted that Mitchell and other shooters give evidence, either through words or behaviors, that they are severely troubled. However, the mixed signals and disguises offered by students like Mitchell may lead school staff to mistakenly believe that the students cannot possibly be extremely troubled.
♦ # 2 - Fragmented Information
School counselors and administrators are likely to have even less of a chance to clearly observe a troubled student’s pattern of behavior. Although teachers are trained to notice "alert papers." "Alert papers"are defined as papers students write which include talk about violence or suicide. The teacher is to pass these papers along to administrators.
Clearly many students who are otherwise healthy may become fixated on such topics and devote written assignment to such disturbing topics. Even when a teacher does feel a paper is especially troubling, he or she may be in a bind. Just as a school counselor, a teacher who breaks a student’s trust by passing along such a paper runs the risk of closing a communication channel with the student and breaking confidentiality.
Michael Carneal, for example, wrote a reaction paper to a school newspaper article that accused him of having a gay relationship with a fellow student. His paper was marked with pleas to the teacher not to tell anyone about the hurt feelings he expressed, as it was "very personal." An additional challenge to teachers confronted with disturbing writings is that these teachers do not have a chance to observe students over long periods of time, in order to determine how the emotions expressed in the writing are supported or negated by the student’s behavior over time.
If a student shares with you in a session a writing that includes violence or suicide regarding the Tarasoff duty to protect mandate, how do you determine with that individual when the confidentiality boundary should be crossed?
♦ # 3 - "Just Laugh it Off"
♦ # 4 - Perceived Overreactions
Instead of seeing overreaction as a sign of emotional distress, it is frequently interpreted as a personality problem or an inability to cope. Therefore, extreme reactions to what is externally perceived as mild teasing are viewed more as social incompetence rather than as a sign of psychological trouble. One concrete piece of information I try to dispense to those who are involved with children in the school system is that if a child has a shaky personality structure to begin with, he or she may react differently than other, psychologically healthy children when exposed to the same type of teasing.
It may indeed be overreacting, but this overreaction should send up red flags that the student is in some form of extreme distress he or she is otherwise not expressing. Think of a student you are currently treating. Are you to a point in your observation of his or her behavior that the confidentiality boundary needs to be broken to uphold the Tarasoff mandate to protect?
My client Phil, age 42, was concerned about the way his son Ryan, 13, responded to bullying at school. Phil stated, "Ever since Ryan didn’t make the football team, he’s been getting a little picked on. People snapping towels at him in the locker room, stuff like that. He’s a bit scrawny… but so was I at that age, I went through it too. But Ryan just shuts himself in his room playing angry music.
I stated to Phil, "I understand completely that you don’t want Ryan to feel bad. You know from experience that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. But by telling Ryan to hang in there, you may be unconsciously dismissing his distress. Ryan may feel more upset because he feels you are dismissing his feelings."
♦ Technique: Identify Thoughts and Feelings
Think of your Phil. Would using the Identify Thoughts and Feelings Technique help him or her have productive conversation with his or her child?
♦ # 5 - Teachers Cannot do Anything to Help
This perceived inconsistency leaves students unsure of how an adult will respond to their concern, and encourages the belief that adults cannot be counted on to provide an adequate helpful response. As a result, students may not bother to report their distress at all. I have found that many adults who advise students on issues of distressful bullying may mean to send the message that students need to learn to deal with the conflict, because there will likely be future incidents. However, a student may interpret this as a brush off, meaning that adults cannot be bothered by the problem, and are ineffective at social control.
Think of a student you are currently treating for emotional distress due to bullying. How have the responses he or she has received from school staff impacted his or her trust in adults as problem solvers?
In this section, we have discussed 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.
In the next section, we will discuss six cultural scripts that influence a shooter’s decision to commit a violent act. These six scripts are changing social status through performance, independence from adults, living with it, running away or suicide, violent fantasies, and threats.
Raitanen, J., & Oksanen, A. (2019). Deep interest in school shootings and online radicalization. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 6(3-4), 159–172.
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