As Pattern Of Shootings Persists, Educators Look For Warning Signs — And Ways To Disrupt It

Download Audio
Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang. (Jesse Costa/WBUR/file)
Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang. (Jesse Costa/WBUR/file)

The school shooting in Parkland, Florida, was greeted with fresh horror and regret throughout the United States. But many remarked that it’s also only the latest instance in a 20-year pattern of a particular kind of violence committed by a particular kind of young man.

Massachusetts has relatively low rates of gun violence. And it hasn't witnessed a shooting inside an elementary or secondary school in the last 20 years — a fact some attribute to low rates of gun ownership and tougher laws.

Still, many parents, teachers and students in the state worry about the social contagion of school violence continuing to spread. And many are hoping to protect schools by other means: namely, profiling, prevention and psychiatric treatment.

Like Cho Seung-Hui and Adam Lanza before him, the accused Parkland shooter, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, had put together a worrying digital footprint and a long disciplinary record -- bringing bullets to school, threatening other students -- long before Wednesday's violence.

Last year, someone wrote online under the name “Nikolas Cruz” that he hoped to be “a professional school shooter.” (After a tip, the FBI looked into the claim, but was unable to link it to any particular person.) Fellow students at Stoneman Douglas High School have said that if they were to experience a school shooting, Cruz would be the one to commit it.

In that sense, Cruz's case is in keeping with national data about these incidents, says Tommy Chang, superintendent of Boston Public Schools.

Citing data from Sandy Hook Promise -- a nonprofit founded by family members affected by the 2012 shooting in Newtown, Connecticut -- Chang said that in four out of five school shootings, at least one other person had knowledge of the plan, but failed to report it.

Last month, BPS announced a partnership, free to the district, with SHP to implement parts of the nonprofit’s “Know The Signs” program. Those efforts launched earlier this month, with a week-long, lunchtime effort to get isolated students integrated back into the social life of their schools.

But down the road, it will also include a system for secure and anonymous reporting of suicidal or violent thoughts shared in conversation or on social media. District officials expect a pilot program to launch next school year. The reports,  which can be submitted by a mobile app, phone or a webpage, will be monitored 24/7 by a team of “certified crisis counselors,” says Kim Pelletreau, BPS’s executive director of safety services. BPS officials say they'll contact law enforcement or other authorities on a case-by-case basis.

Pelletreau added that many BPS students already communicate with administrators or teachers about signs of trouble among their peers.

But according to psychologist Michael Thompson, co-author of "Raising Cain," a 1999 book about boys’ emotional needs, the problems go deeper than reporting.

“I have been to some high schools where there was a boy who was a killer,” Thompson said. “Often, the counseling staff have been deeply, deeply concerned about this kid before the fact. It’s not like they’re invisible, kids like this.”

Thompson faults a nationwide shortage in mental health resources comprehensive enough to address the small minority of students in acute emotional distress.

“We don’t want to provide services for kids. They’re expensive, they’re intensive. They take a lot of staffing — a pill is not enough for a boy like this,” Thompson said. “But school systems generally are strapped for money, and there are lots of other claims on them.”

Psychiatric professionals have long argued that mentally-ill children and adolescents are radically underserved by health professionals, with only 8,000 child psychiatrists working in the United States. Chang said that BPS, at least, “absolutely has the resources and support services needed for young people” at schools, and that the district has a response team ready for extreme cases.

And some dispute the links between mental illness and school shootings, arguing that personal histories of domestic violence and drug abuse are far better predictors.

For Thompson, the nation needs to confront a public health crisis deriving from a “volatile combination” of youthful uncertainty, mental illness, troubled masculinity and ready access to firearms. Depending on how you count, at least the pace or the destructiveness of mass shootings -- and maybe both -- has quickened in recent years. Three of the 10 deadliest shootings in modern American history took place in the last five months.

“I don’t think people understand that the symptoms of mental illness are contagious,” Thompson said. Suicidality and behaviors like cutting can spread quickly through communities of young people.

School shootings are no different, Thompson added: “Politicians are hoping that this somehow just stops." But he says such patterns have a momentum all their own: “I think it will continue. I don’t see that it will burn itself out anytime soon.”

Facing that momentum, Massachusetts' Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is taking its own initiative, with its commission on safe and supportive schools. That commission was established in 2014 as part of legislation to curb gun violence.

Commission member Susan Cole says their goal is to give Massachusetts teachers "the time and the skills" to go beyond academics and care for the whole child before them. They plan to release a report on students' access to mental-health support services in the next year.

With gun laws stuck and images of panicked classrooms in the air, local officials are looking for ways to act. But Chang admits they're doing so under national constraints: "We can do everything in our power and control to prevent and to focus on creating safe welcoming environments. But we don’t have the authority to get guns off the street. We need help -- we need help from our lawmakers.”

This segment aired on February 16, 2018.

Headshot of Max Larkin

Max Larkin Reporter, Education
Max Larkin is an education reporter.



More from WBUR

Listen Live