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

Section 5
Warning Behaviors Between School Shooters
and Other Students of Concern

Question 5 | 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 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.

5 Aspects of Mixed Signals

♦ # 1 - Masters of Disguise
As we discussed in Section 2, high school students who perceive themselves as different from others may go to great lengths to hide their differences to avoid stigma.  In a similar vein, the first aspect of weak or mixed signals from children that can interfere with the school system’s ability to identify shooters early is that some children are truly masters of disguise.  For example, Mitchell Johnson, one of the Westside shooters, did end up in trouble due to his explosive temper with some frequency. 

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
A second aspect of weak or mixed signals is fragmented information, which strongly relates to the information on organizational information occlusion due to the confidentiality boundary discussed in the last section. In the case of fragmented information, teachers usually see students, especially those in middle or high school, for an hour or so per day, and thus do not have enough exposure to the students to draw conclusions about behavior patterns.

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"
In addition to masters of disguise and fragmented information, a third aspect of weak or mixed signals is the advice to students to "just laugh it off."  This piece of advice is closely tied to the common maxim that bullies can be dissuaded by not giving the bully the satisfaction of an emotional response. Michael Carneal certainly tried very hard to mask his feelings of hurt and anger in response to the article that labeled him gay. As you know, when children respond to this seemingly reasonable piece of advice in order to protect the self, it makes the task of school staff trying to spot depressed or troubled children much more difficult.  Would you agree?

♦ # 4 - Perceived Overreactions
A fourth aspect of weak or mixed signals that makes it difficult to identify students at risk is the perception that students may be overreacting to teasing or bullying.  Mitchell Johnson, for example was perceived as overreacting to mild teasing. He would frequently brag about his prowess in athletics, and when cut down to size by his peers, Mitchell would fly off the handle. In fact, many shooters display this pattern of overreaction, which is often not interpreted as a sign of a deeper problem. 

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 told him, hey, it’s no big deal. They’re just being stupid, he’s better than that.  I mean, I went through it too, I just toughened up. Couple years later I filled out real big, and no one bothered me. Ryan just needs to hang in there, it’ll get better."

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
I suggested Phil might try the Identify Thoughts and Feelings technique. I stated to Phil, "You might open a conversation by making an observation of Ryan’s feelings, like ‘Ryan, I see something is making you upset.’ When Ryan responds, concentrate on identifying the feelings Ryan is expressing. Use active listening. When Ryan pauses, respond by putting the feelings you have identified into words. You might use phrases like, ‘No wonder you are so upset,’ or ‘that could make you angry'."

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
A fifth aspect of weak or mixed signals is the perception that teachers cannot do anything to help.  Many schools lack a unified approach in dealing with bullying. One staff member may advise victims to turn the other cheek, another to report the incident to a counselor. This, as you know, gives children the impression of inconsistency, which erodes trust. 

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.

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 five aspects of weak or mixed signals that can interfere with the ability to identify children at risk within the school system? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

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