The Secret Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Education and a number of other organizations have carefully studied incidents where youth have committed pre-planned, multiple-victim shootings in American schools. Their meticulous research has supported what many educators have maintained for years — at-risk youth need to be connected to and feel a part of their school. While the majority of research indicates that there is no reliable profile of a school shooter, a careful review of the research could be taken to indicate that there may, however, be a profile of a school where major acts of violence are more likely to occur.

Every Student Has a Place

Today’s schools face many daunting challenges. One is to find a place for each student in every school. Today’s students take many forms; they come from a wide range of household situations and, in general, are less alike than in any time in our nation’s history. While such diversity brings many positive influences to our schools, it also can result in alienation for many of our youths who find themselves struggling to fit in. This is where the staff plays an integral role. Research shows that students who can identify one adult that they trust and admire are less likely to engage in risky behavior.

One technique is to ask staff members to help administrators identify every student who appears to be in need of a mentor-type relationship. A staff member or other responsible adult can then be paired with each as a mentor. By partnering with organizations such as Boys and Girls Clubs of America, etc., the number of available mentors can be dramatically increased. While most school systems already make significant efforts to encourage students to avail themselves of such opportunities, some do not make a consistent practice of going to the individual students. By combining this approach of offering programs to students with encouraging specific at-risk youth, a much higher percentage of students will participate.

A Focus on Listening

In the school threat management training programs offered by the Secret Service and the United States Department of Education, the instructors stress an important finding from their interviews with students who have perpetrated multiple-victim shootings. Those interviewed repeatedly reported that educators in their schools were not easily approachable. When asked what school officials could have done to prevent his shooting rampage at Pearl High School, Luke Woodham replied that if he had been able to talk openly with one school employee about his problems, the shooting would not have taken place. He emphasized that this openness would only have been present after he had become comfortable with the adult, indicating that such relationships must be built through time. While this approach will obviously not work with every troubled youth, most will respond in a positive fashion.

In addition to striving to ensure that every student is connected with at least one responsible and caring adult, efforts to get students involved in supportive group environments within the school are worthwhile. Some students find a place in band, many in a science club and others on the school rifle team. The most important point is to try to get each student connected to a larger group of their peers.

Younger Role Models

A number of violent acts, such as shootings, and countless less visible situations, such as fights, have been connected to incidents of exclusion and bullying by various groups within the school. Football players, cheerleaders, gifted students, affluent students and informal groups of a seemingly endless variety have been identified as putting immense pressure on individual students. One technique that has shown positive results is to solicit staff with influential roles with such groups to prevent bullying and school violence by heading up antibullying and anti-violence campaigns.

Making a Difference

Teachers frequently have a tremendous positive impact on students without even being aware of it. This is particularly true for students who do not feel like they have a place. A good teacher can give a child at least a chance to feel,“[if] he/she thinks I’m worth something, maybe I am.” You can make a difference in the lives of children, probably more of a difference than you realize. Structuring our schools to ensure that we are making a difference in the lives of the children who need it the most is not only a noble thing, it is a practical goal.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at www.safehavensinternational.org.