We could start this story as we usually do with reminding of you of all the recent school shootings — including one just Thursday night at Tennessee State University — reporting how many people were killed, what inspired the shooter. We could hear local leaders condemning the acts of violence.
But this narrative is so much a part of our culture and our politics right now that we don’t need to remind you how we got here.
Instead, let’s meet a couple of people who have dedicated much of their professional lives to preventing this kind of violence.
This week on For the Record: The work to keep kids safe.
Click the audio link on this page to hear the full story.
Before Joni Greenberg started working to raise awareness of mental health issues in schools, she spent more than 20 years as a high school guidance counselor in West Virginia.
“I loved working with the students, trying to help them navigate life and how to survive a breakup,” she says.
But the 1999 Columbine shooting changed everything.
She started looking more carefully into the lives and motivations of her students. Signs from students that have given her pause include social isolation, mental illness, tough home lives – and one avid hunter who had an obsession with guns.
But the time she was most concerned was when a classroom had to be cleared because a child wouldn’t leave, because “he was having a bad day,” she says. “This child was angry.”
When Greenberg finally got a chance to sit down with that student, she found out that he’d just been really mad about one particular homework assignment and ultimately found his way out of that anger.
Every guidance counselor has a story like this. But what are teachers and administrators supposed to do if the situation escalates, or if the nagging worries about one student just don’t go away?
That’s what Greenberg focuses on now as the manager of a $500,000 grant given to Berkeley County Schools in West Virginia, where she works as a Project Aware coordinator. The money funds programs designed to increase awareness of mental health issues. Part of that means training people to recognize when someone could be a potential threat to themselves or others.
It’s work that psychologist Gene Deisinger has been doing around the country since the early ’90s.
“We’re asking people to pay attention to those things that seem out of the norm or disproportionate to the situation, like a person becoming more isolated and withdrawn, they’re expressing ideas about the use of violence,” he says.
Shortly after the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007, Deisinger was brought in as a security consultant.
“There were people who were so frightened and so hypersensitive to the risk of another incident,” he says, and “… on the other end of the spectrum, there are also those people who were dealing with their trauma through the use of denial and a belief of well, ‘because we’ve experienced the worst, nothing else bad can happen. And this focus on safety and security and mental illness is too much, being made too late and it’s not relevant anymore.’ ”
But it was relevant, Deisinger says, because just a few years after the Virginia Tech massacre, another person on campus with mental health concerns, posed a risk.
When this individual came to the attention of the university staff, they “implemented the threat management process,” he says, “and thankfully had a significant effect in de-escalating the situation.”
Intervention is key, he says. So much of this training is something we hear all the time now: “If you see something, say something.”
It can be especially hard for teenagers to combat the idea of “tattle telling,” but Joni Greenberg says it’s still crucial to say something.
“They think their friend is never going to talk to them again if they tell somebody that they’re feeling suicidal,” she says. “And you try to tell them, ‘Would you rather they be mad at you or would you rather them commit suicide?’ But it is hard.”
She says gun safety is also an important and tough issue to wade into.
“People don’t always like to be told what to do with their guns,” she says. “You just try to educate the students.”
For example, Greenberg says last year West Virginia’s Hedgesville High School conducted an exercise designed to prepare teachers if gun violence does happen.
“We brought in … the state police and they would put us in the cafeteria and then they would go to the opposite end of the school and shoot three different guns,” she says, “… and the closer they got, the more upsetting it was.”
Even though the officers were shooting blanks, she says, “when you hear that gun in your building, it’s just like you can’t not face it.”
Gene Deisinger says the jury is out on whether these kinds of simulations really do any good. And if they aren’t carried out properly they can be traumatizing to those taking part.
The role playing, the simulations and the trainings are about giving people a sense of control about their own safety. But what about the dangers of cultivating a culture of fear?
Joni Greenberg says you don’t want to scare children, but the consequences of inaction aren’t acceptable.
“You always have to try,” she says. “I mean look at Sandy Hook. That was devastating. So yeah, you never quit trying and you never quit inventing ways to make your school safer.”