Anyone can understand why school authorities would be jumpy, after the recent mass shooting at Newtown, CT.
But the recent suspension — and possible expulsion — of San Francisco high school student, Courtni Webb, is a fine example of how not to deal with suspected school violence.
Ms. Webb was suspended, according to news reports, for writing a poem about the Newtown killings, which apparently violated the school’s policy against threats of violence.
Poets, of course, have been deemed a threat to society ever since Plato banned them from his ideal “Republic.” Poetry, Plato argued, spoke to the heart, not the mind — and thus encouraged rebellion against the natural order of things.
But having heard Ms. Webb read her poem in its entirety, I found little in the way of violent rebellion, and certainly no overt threats to her classmates. Yes, the poem might be called self-absorbed — but isn’t that part of normal adolescence?
When Ms. Webb writes, “When you don’t feel loved/ you hate the world,” she could easily be expressing the feelings of thousands of alienated young people from time immemorial. Most of the poem seems to be an attempt to express her personal frustrations, and to understand the motivation of the Newtown shooter — not to threaten new violence.
We would be fortunate, as a society, if more lonely and alienated young people expressed their feelings in poetry, and fewer, through acts of violence.
We have yet to create a well-validated “profile” of those who carry out acts of so-called targeted violence, such as school shootings. The evidence to date suggests that perpetrators of such attacks tend to have very low self-esteem, a “persecutory/paranoid” outlook, depressive symptoms, narcissistic traits, and feelings of rejection. Perhaps one can find intimations of a few of these characteristics in Ms. Webb’s poem.
But as my colleague, Dr. James Knoll, has pointed out, focusing too heavily on these factors by “profiling” students would deluge school officials with “false positives.” Profiling alone — in the absence of careful, on-site assessment — casts far too broad a net to be useful.
Furthermore, as Prof. Eric Madfis of the University of Washington at Tacoma has pointed out, “zero tolerance” policies with mandatory arrests, suspensions and expulsions appear to do little to thwart targeted violence in schools.
Rather, schools do best by heeding the early warning signs of planned, targeted violence, such as when a would-be perpetrator “leaks” elements of the plan to another classmate, or posts threats on a website. Indeed, research from Finland found that adolescents aged 3-18 who expressed “massacre threats” online were a riskier group than adolescents who expressed the threats offline — for example, those who made online threats had often begun making actual preparations for the attack.
Of course, utilizing these early warning signs presupposes that knowledgeable peers or family members are willing to come forward to school authorities or police — and this happens all too rarely. As Prof. Madfis has noted, there is often a “code of silence” among adolescents that discourages coming forward with such information — which is widely regarded as “snitching.”
Nevertheless, the recent case of Blaec Lammers, in Bolivar, Missouri, shows that timely, personal intervention can make a huge difference. The young man’s plans for an Aurora-style movie theater massacre were thwarted when his mother reported him to local police.
Perhaps the most sensible recommendations for preventing targeted violence in schools come from the Interdisciplinary Group on Preventing School and Community Violence, writing in the aftermath of the Newtown, CT shootings. Among their conclusions was that the most effective way of preventing violence targeted at schools is by
“…maintaining close communication and trust with students and others in the community, so that threats will be reported and can be investigated by responsible authorities.”
The group did not endorse the use of “profiling” or checklists of personality traits. Rather, they urged the use of trained staff members who would investigate specific instances of apparent threats. Of course, schools strapped for funding will find it hard to implement such staff training — yet arguably, this may be more effective in preventing violence than posting armed guards at all our schools.
I also believe that greater cooperation between school health personnel and outside mental health specialists is sorely needed. For example, the school nurse or school psychologist could meet periodically with family physicians and psychiatrists in the community, to discuss students believed to be at high risk for targeted violence. This could be done via anonymous case presentations that would protect the privacy of potentially innocent students — and without simplistic “profiling.”
Some of these adolescents might be tugged off the path of violence through appropriate, voluntary counseling or mental health intervention. In cases of extreme or imminent threats of violence, involuntary treatment might be required, via appropriate judicial processes.
What will not help, in my judgment, is targeting students like Courtni Webb, who engage in acts of poetic expression, rather than savage violence.
References and Further reading
Sankin A: Courtni Webb, San Francisco High School Senior, Suspended For Writing Poem About Sandy Hook Shooting. Accessed at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/28/courtni-webb_n_2376833.html
Dibble L: 3Qs: Analyzing and preventing school shootings. Accessed at: http://www.northeastern.edu/news/2012/03/madfis/
Zarembo A: Plotters of school killings tend to tip off someone in advance. Los Angeles Times, Dec. 23, 2012. Accessed at: http://articles.latimes.com/2012/dec/23/nation/la-na-massacre-prevention-2012122
Interdisciplinary Group on Preventing School and Community Violence. Accessed 12/20/12: http://curry.virginia.edu/articles/sandyhookshooting
Knoll JL: Mass Shootings: Research & Lessons. Psychiatric Times (in press).
Knoll J: Mass Shootings and the Ethic of the Open Heart. Medscape Psychiatry Dec 20, 2012. Accessed at: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/776427