Campus panel explores gun violence in schools

Sunday, March 18, 2018
Buena Vista University staged a panel discussion, “Addressing Gun Violence in Our Schools” last week. A panel was assembled including Storm Lake Superintendent of Schools Carl Turner, Public Safety Director Mark Prosser, psychology educator Tracy Thomas, and communications educator Andrea Frantz.
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STORM LAKE — At the one month anniversary of the latest school shooting rampage, Buena Vista University staged a panel discussion, “Addressing Gun Violence in Our Schools” last week. The event sought to bring perspective to the violence which seems to be increasing in both frequency and body count.

The event was organized by two university educators, Callie Friesen and Dixee Bartholomew-Feis, who noted that they have a personal motivation on the gun issue. They share a friend who is a teacher and librarian at the Parkland, Florida, school where 17 victims were murdered.

“The climate has changed,” said Friesen, an assistant professor of education. “None of us wanted this to be part of teacher education.”

On the eve of protests around the nation resulting from the Parkland killings, however, the educators said they didn’t want the moment to pass by without initiating conversation.

A panel was assembled including Storm Lake Superintendent of Schools Carl Turner, Public Safety Director Mark Prosser, psychology educator Tracy Thomas, and communications educator Andrea Frantz.

Turner said that while police keep the school system up to date on the need to protect itself from situations like active shooters, “it’s really sad that so many messages have to come our way” on the subject.

Those who have committed school shootings often are those who became disconnected from school as students, he said. The district is stressing to its staff to make sure every student feels connected in some way, and to make school a place students will like coming to and feel safe and respected.

“A lot of these people come from home situations that may be chaotic” and desperately need a stable and predictable place in their lives, he said.

Every student also needs to feel some sense of achievement — even it isn’t always in the form of traditional academics. “All of us like to be in a situation where we can have some success,” he said. The greatest risk comes from those who feel the school doesn’t mean anything to them, so would feel no remorse for destruction there.

Security and locked doors have become a fact of life in today’s schools. Storm Lake schools subscribe to ALICE training systems (alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate). The philosophy used to be for classes facing a crisis situation to huddle in a corner and “wait for them to come and shoot you,” now teachers and students are being encouraged to take whatever action they feel might give them a better chance of survival.

Arming teachers?

“Would schools be safer if teachers were armed?” is becoming a common question, Superintendent Turner said.

“If teachers wanted to pack guns, they would have trained to be police officers,” he said. “How does it create a positive, caring environment if your teachers are carrying guns? I have a hard time wrapping my head around that.”

After the event, he told the Pilot-Tribune that he had been approached by a few teachers asking whether they can bring guns to school, including one who was particularly adamant about wanting to be armed for protection. Guns are not permitted on school property, and anyone who brings one into the schools is subject to arrest.

Turner notes that it can be difficult to tell students and teachers to take action to protect themselves if they should ever face a threat of violence in the school, but also to tell them that carrying a firearm is wrong. Having guns in classrooms could raise the potential of students taking and using a teacher’s gun, or a gun accident injuring a child. “I think the risks would be greater than any benefit,” Turner said.

Storm Lake schools have added a full-time behavior strategist. “Our school people are not trained to deal with mental illness,” Turner said. Police involvement in the schools is appreciated, but security could also be taken too far, he feels. “Our schools can’t become wires all around, a sniper’s nest up top, fence around everything.”

Predicting Shooters

Thomas addressed the difficulties in trying to profile a student who could become a shooter. “Humans are very complex,” she said, and if you study 10 people involved in school shootings, you would likely find 10 different troubles, life experiences, and sets of behavior. “It’s a very difficult job to identify kids in schools who could become threats.”

A clinical and forensic psychologist as well as an assistant professor, she said that while it is difficult to determine predictors for a potential mass murderer, there are three types of people who school personnel should be aware of.

One would be the psychopath — this type of student doesn’t care about rules or other’s rights, they may show bullying, hostile or antisocial behavior. “It doesn’t mean they will do a school shooting, but they may be in need of some kind of intervention.”

The psychotic student has a treatable mental health problem. They may seem disconnected from reality, may act paranoid at times, speak of odd sets of beliefs, and may act like a loner. This student also will not necessarily resort to violence, but is probably in need of a mental health service provider.

A third type for schools to watch for is the traumatized student. They may have endured physical or sexual abuse through much of their lives and possibly by multiple perpetrators, and may also be victimized by their peers. They may come from a chaotic situation like a broken home or series of foster homes. “My sense is that most teachers know who these kids are,” Thomas said, suggesting that they might be helped by social services providers.

In response to a question on violent video games and entertainment, she said it is not so simple as assigning blame to these influences. Many people play or watch such media with no inclination to commit violence, and for some, there does seem to be an impact. Getting rid of violent media would not “take care of everything,” she said.

Police strategies

Prosser reminded the group that the risk is not only from students, but from potential shooters from outside who could enter schools. And a knife, he pointed out, could do as much damage as a gun.

For police, the Columbine massacre in 1999 was the “line in the sand.” Although there were shooting incidents before that, the high school tragedy was the one that forced law enforcement to change strategy.

Police cars no longer carry shotguns even in small communities, but have gone to precision rifles to take out a shooter at long range, he said. Strategy before Columbine was to circle a scene with an armed suspect and negotiate, but Columbine taught officers that death may continue inside while officers are standing around outside. Now, officers would not wait for backup or a tactical team — even one or two first on a scene would enter and advance on the threat. Response techniques have evolved at least five times over since Columbine, he said.

Now, officers responding to a shooting rampage will have been trained to pass by the injured people to get to the threat, instead of stopping to give aid, which runs against the mindset of many officers, especially those who live in smaller communities who realize that those they pass by might be loved ones or people they know. Equipment has changed dramatically, and even ambulances and fire trucks locally are equipped with body armor for shooter situations.

Storm Lake Police now train constantly on scenarios such as active shooters. While odds are that it will never happen here, the concept is to “prepare for the worst and pray for the best,” Prosser said. Police work with schools, campus security, and major employers to prepare for a crisis, and now are beginning to add churches to the list as it seems shooters may target religion as well.

Students may train too, but perhaps not enough. The public safety director said that the state requires only tornado and fire drills at schools. Hardly any school children have died in those situations in years, while many are dying from active shooter cases for which no drills are required. Storm Lakes schools do hold one lockdown drill per semester.

Thinking today is not for students to huddle passively if they face a shooter, but to either run, hide or fight, he said. “If a threat is in your face, don’t kneel down and be a willing victim,” he said.

The situations may force teachers into making the kind of decisions that usually only occur in the military, he adds. If there is a threat in the school, and one child is in the bathroom, should the teacher lock down the classroom door and chance dooming the child, or not lock down and put 20 classmates at risk?

“It never ends. It’s unfortunate ... but we have learned many things” from the tragedies, Prosser said. He had never anticipated that small town police would wind up having to carry military-style weapons.

Prosser noted that in the event of a tragic incident, school and community leaders interviewed on television time and time again speak of never thinking such a thing could happen in their community. “The days of thinking that it can’t happen here are gone,” he said.

There is also no way of knowing what has been prevented because people were reached with help, arrested, or turned in by others before violence could occur. In virtually every case that could become a violent outburst, someone knows that the individual is having those types or feelings, or plans, he said.

Is charge possible?

Frantz completed the panel, saying that it is impossible to talk about making change without getting into some of the political issues. It is an issue everyone should be looking at, because simple acts like going to school or going shopping could put them in a potential target zone.

Change is usually made because of people standing up and saying “no more,” and that has often been young people, she said to students in the audience. She spoke of young people’s roles in the early civil rights movement of the 1950s and later in wearing black armbands to protest the war in Vietnam. In Parkland, student survivors have taken the microphone and are beginning to lead the demand for change.

Social media can be a powerful tool in activism today, she noted, citing the rapid #metoo movement for awareness of domestic abuse. Letter-writing campaigns to political representatives can also leverage policy changes.

“How many times have we talked about gun restrictions, and more funding for mental health? — it’s been going on for decades, but we seem to be unable to sustain the conversation,” she said. The Parkland students’ efforts may be making the discussion a lasting one this time, she feels.

Buena Vista is among the schools and colleges across the country taking part in a walk-out movement Wednesday. A “March for Our Lives” is also taking place in many places including Des Moines later this month. These events provide a visual representation of people’s concerns. Frantz noted, however, that those who do participate in events like school walkouts must be prepared to accept responsibility for ramifications from their decision such as possible damage to grades, or kickback from those with opposing opinions. “When the issues are hard, it can be really uncomfortable,” she warned, encouraging students to be respectful of others’ opinions in pursuing “the art of civil discourse.”

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