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

Section 13
Mediating Role of Schemas and Social Support on Campus Shootings

Question 13 | 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 steps that can be used to help prevent school shootings.  These four steps are adjusting the radar, school resource officers, leavening social capital and tweaking adolescent culture, and a zero tolerance policy.

In this section, we will discuss four steps that can help encourage students to come forward about threats. These four steps are ensure confidentiality, direct contact between parents and teachers, educational films, and decisive action.

4 Steps to Encourage Students to Come Forward About Threats

♦ Step # 1 - Assurance of Confidentiality
A first step that can be taken by a school system to help encourage students to come forward about threats is the assurance of confidentiality. One powerful method of achieving this is the implementation or advertisement of an anonymous tip line. If a school lacks the resources to institute its own tip line, there are nationwide student violence tip lines that can be advertised on school grounds. Schools should not solely make use of these hotlines to assure confidentiality however.

As discussed in the last section, school resource officers provide an adult that students can confide in, and research indicates that the fact that these officers do not report directly to the school increases students feelings that their information will be kept private, and that action will be taken that will not link the tip to the reporting student.

♦ Step # 2 - Direct Contact between Parents and Teachers
A second step that can be taken by a school system to help encourage students to come forward about threats is to increase direct contact between parents and teachers, especially in middle school. In middle school, concern for children’s independence has many parents all but dropping out of the picture in school activities. By encouraging this dialogue to continue, a school system can help complete a valuable loop of information. At middle school age, students are still likely to confide in parents about their fears.

A parent without a secure connection to the school may not know who to go to, or how, about a fear of violence expressed by their child. If parents maintain meaningful bonds with school staff, parents are more able to find ways to come forward about a threat in ways that will not publicly implicate their child. In this way, the parent fulfills the child’s need for him or her to "do something" without exposing the child to the risk of being identified as the source, and thus the child is reassured that the parent can be trusted to keep his or her confidences.

♦ Step # 3 - Educational Films
In addition to ensuring confidentiality and direct contact between parents and teachers, a third step that can encourage students to come forward is the use of educational films. The primary purpose of this step is to help students recognize that the threat of shootings is not fantastic and remote. Students who feel that such incidents of violence cannot possibly happen are much more likely to dismiss threatening statements as casual. This is not, of course, to advocate shocking footage or an atmosphere of fear.

However, frank, blunt, graphic, and accurate portrayals of actual events help to bring home to students the unhappy message that the threat of school shootings is real. I have found a PBS Frontline special on Moses Lake, and a Dateline NBC program concerning the Jeremy Getman case to be accurate depictions of the terrible cost rampage school shootings have exacted on schools and wider communities. These videos, of course, should be followed by structured class discussions in which students are asked to analyze what they have just seen.

♦ Step # 4 - Decisive Action
A fourth step that can encourage students to come forward about threats is making sure that when a student takes the courageous step needed to report a threat, his or her report is met with decisive action. Unfortunately, this is not the result that students usually expect. As you know, bureaucracies have a way or pushing aside or burying troublesome information, particularly if no direct threat is involved.  It is vitally important that this decisive action is also perceived as fair. In this way, zero tolerance policies make little sense. Would you agree? 

School staff should be trained and encouraged to assess the context of words which were spoken as well as the state of mind of the student issuing the threat. At the same time, if a threat is assessed as serious, every immediate action should be taken to protect the student body. 

Both students and teachers should be made aware of the FBI research concerning which threats need most definitively to be reported. According to these FBI guidelines, the more specific a threat, the more serious it may be. For example, how would you assess and address a student who says, "Oh man, I’m gonna kill that guy!"? How would you assess and address a student who says, "You’ll see who lives and dies on Monday!"?

Clearly, the former threat is much more likely to be a casual comment, while the latter is more threatening and more likely to require immediate, decisive action from the school staff.  Helping school staff learn to make this distinction is, in my opinion, vital, as it helps students avoid the worldview that school life is divided between innocent students and monsters who target them.

As you know, students feel both an obligation to protect the welfare of other students, and a duty to protect friends and peers who say things they don’t really mean. If the system of distinguishing threats is perceived to be fair, students will therefore be less reluctant to come forward.

One additional technique that can be useful was pioneered by Dan Olweus in Norway. Olweus’ program focuses on treating the entire school for a bullying problem, rather than focusing attention on the subset of students who are causing trouble. Clearly, decreasing bullying has many positive outcomes, one of which is reducing the pressure on students who are thinking of reporting a threat.

5 Steps to Treating the Entire School for a Bullying Problem
As a review, Olweus’ program involves:
Step 1: Give out a schoolwide questionnaire to assess the baseline incidence of bullying. This helps provide a momentum for students to help solve the problem
Step 2: Follow up the questionnaire with a school wide conference to discuss the results and share best practices with school staff
Step 3:  Increase supervision in areas identified as most likely to be hotspots for bullying. Train teachers to understand that the prevention of harassment is part of their jobs.
Step 4:  Post rules about bullying in classrooms. Insist teachers intervene aggressively when they see bullying or harassment. This allows students to see that teachers take the message seriously and are acting on students’ behalf. This not only improves the disciplinary environment, but removes from the students the feelings that they are fully responsible for defending themselves.
Step 5: Finally, rules must be enforced, although leaving room for adult judgment, in a no-nonsense fashion. Clearly, any hint that a teacher is not taking the situation seriously may undermine the whole technique.

Think of a school in which you currently work, or to which you consult.  How could the Olweus program help students in that school feel more encouraged to report threats issued by a friend or peer?

In this section, we have discussed four steps that can help encourage students to come forward about threats.  These four steps are ensure confidentiality, direct contact between parents and teachers, educational films, and decisive action.

In the next section, we will discuss Jack Kelley’s 4-stage model for the phases of a hostage situation.  These four phases are the initial hostage taking stage, the crisis stage, the accommodation stage, and the surrender stage.  In addition, we will discuss the responsibility of adult caregivers to children during a hostage situation.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Littleton, H. L., Grills-Taquechel, A. E., Axsom, D., Bye, K., & Buck, K. S. (2012). Prior sexual trauma and adjustment following the Virginia Tech campus shootings: Examination of the mediating role of schemas and social support. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 4(6), 578–586. 

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.

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 steps that can help encourage students to come forward about threats? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

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