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Two weeks after Nikolas Cruz used a semi-automatic rifle to murder17 people, students and teachers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were expected to return to the crime scene known as their school. The mental health providers made available to them were insufficient and inadequate for the more than 3000 students and staff grappling with trauma and grief. The survivors seeking counseling often saw a different therapist at each time, which meant they did not have the opportunity to build a relationship or receive any sense of stability. Kyra Parrow, a student who survived the shooting, declares how the shortfall of support had affected the moral of students, “the therapy dogs, painting rocks, and hugs provided were a bandage to deep mental wounds that needed stitches” (qtd. from Duerr 24). After receiving short-term help (about 10 days), which seems to be standard procedure for mass casualty incidences, the students “were never given instruction or support on what to do next, — how to continue to heal and cope” (Duerr 24). The prevention of gun violence in American schools is a concern that the nation must address from all sides of the issue. As a result, school campuses should approach minimizing preventable gun violence by enacting policies to better mental health awareness and services, provide appropriate training in crisis management, and improving background checks to purchasing firearms by closing loopholes.
The carrying of firearms in public schools in the United States has been a difficult issue to manage. From 1993 and 2013, the percentage of high school students who reported carrying a weapon on school property at least once in the past month fell from 12 to 5 percent (Zhang et al). Despite these declines, the debate continues at how to best to prevent gun violence in schools and particularly mass shootings. Most heinous and notorious gun-related tragedies in American K-12 schools occurred at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in 1999 and Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. Gun laws are broken down into three different segments, first, there are those laws that restrict the importation of guns and equipment, second, there are laws that affect manufacturing or sales within U.S. borders and third, there are laws on ownership and use by the individual (Gale). According to the Violence Policy Center, the rise in public mass shootings has coincided with an increase in the sale of semiautomatic weapons with high-capacity ammunition magazines. Mass shootings in general have become increasingly common in the United States. As the gun industry sells and markets firearms designed for increased lethality, mass shooters purchase these same weapons to use in their attacks. Violent Policy Center research has also found that mass shootings are frequently committed by individuals with permits to carry concealed handguns. According to experts, mass shootings in schools are predominately done by students who are likely mentally ill and the mental health system failed to help them get appropriate care. The loopholes in background checks makes it possible for unstable students to access guns.
The approach to mental health service on school campuses needs to change from a deficit-oriented approach to a positive psychology approach. An assessment of emotion, behavior and cognitive functioning by professionals has become the baseline of mental health work with children and their families. The way in which care providers choose to gain this understanding can influence how decisions are made and treatment is formulated. (qtd from Beutler et al. 2003; McQuaide and Ehrenreich 1997; Tedeschi and Kilmer 2005). Although current assessments are made to help alleviate behavioral issues a child is experiencing, they are more likely to have a negative bias toward over emphasizing a child’s deficits rather than his or her strengths, which have a potential to do harm to the child through a “two-pronged self-fulfilling prophecy”(qtd from Synder et al. 2006). Due to this, a deficit-oriented protocol can lead mental health professionals to respond in a manner that conforms to or confirms the assigned label. The second effect it can cause is that it may encourage the child to act in accordance with any attributed label or deficit. According to a study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, the addition to a strengths-based focus to an assessment protocol provides “a balanced, holistic understanding of both positive and negative characteristics” (Brazeau). The stigma associated with mental health and the fear of being “labeled” is a major deterrent for families who have children who need mental health care. A possible reason why mass shooting incidents have occurred are due to the attacker feeling out of place and unable to fit in with other students. If changes to the way students’ mental health to assessed and treated it can hopefully stop a person before it is too late. The positive psychology method would reduce the labeling of children and hence forth the stigma while being able to receive more focused and well-rounded services.
Another way to stop gun violence in schools is preparing school administrators and all educators for the crises that occur with training in the three phases of a crisis: pre-crisis planning, acute crisis response and post-crisis activities. Crisis management refers to the policies and procedures developed for handling emergency situations. Since each crisis can vary in size and scope, methods and management procedures vary across grade levels and situations. The imperative steps to creating and implementing any effective crisis management plan are mainly prevention, preparation, response and recovery. Since not all crises can be prevented, the key to successful crisis management is preparation. Schools must make sure that they use all of the resources available: teachers, administrators, social workers, security officers, and emergency responders (U.S. Department of Education). Scott Poland states that the distribution of crisis management materials is a necessary step in making sure schools are prepared for emergencies. Materials may include phone trees, floor plans, evacuation routes, first aid instructions, and health awareness lists identifying persons with special needs. These materials should be reviewed carefully with staff and students (Poland). The Department of Education’s Emergency Response and Crisis Management Technical Assistance Center also advises schools to provide emergency supply kits to faculty including items such as flashlights, batteries, contact information, first aid supplies and instructions (“Taking the Lead”). The Red Cross recommends schools keep a stock supply of certain items, especially water, first aid and sanitation supplies in the event of a crisis (“Taking the Lead”). Schools should enlist the assistance of a Crisis Intervention Team to help students and staff cope with the crisis they experienced (U.S. Department of Education). Group Crisis Intervention is a form of school-based intervention that might be used in schools allows students to share feelings, ask questions and come to terms with traumatic events (U.S. Department of Education). Another form of group counseling, known as Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, may be used after a crisis (Black). Mental health professionals also should be on hand to provide individual counseling as needed. Once school resumes its normal schedule, teachers should provide students with a place to discuss their feelings about what happened to help reduce stress (U.S. Department of Education). Teachers should continue to monitor student behavior for signs of distress after a crisis (Poland). Additionally, the CIT should conduct follow-up sessions with students after some time has passed (Poland). Schools should consider honoring anniversaries and creating memorials and other positive ways to cope with crises.
Loopholes to background checks need to be closed for buying a gun online, through a gun show, or through some private sales. America has the weakest gun laws in the developed world, and the highest levels of gun ownership out of any country in the world. At the same time, a study published in the Journal of American Medical Association last year found that the US’s civilian gun death rate is nearly four times that of Switzerland, five times that of Canada, 35 times that of the United Kingdom, and 53 times that of Japan. The research indicates these issues are linked, where there are more guns, and where gun laws are weaker, there are more gun deaths, including homicides and suicides, after controlling for other variables that contribute to crime and violence. A key insight to note is a shift in stance by the NRA when it comes to background checks, as stated by Sandra Froman, a member of the board of directors for the NRA, “The NRA is not against background checks,” she continues, “We support making sure they are enforced, we’re not supporting more background checks of law abiding citizens” (qtd. from Simon 55). Previously the NRA was outspoken about enforcing background checks for purchasing guns, so this shows a change in stance to support background checks. Another opinion on the matter comes from Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, “I think the common ground clearly exists from a policy standpoint when talking about background checks” (qtd. from Simon 55). The consensus of improving background checks to safeguard schools from people, especially children from being able to purchase guns that can be used to for violence.
People in favor of gun rights propose putting armed security in schools, as well as arming school teachers and administrators because it would protect students from mass shooting incidents. The opposing side views freedom to own a gun as the right to defend oneself and one’s household is an inalienable right; it’s what the Second Amendment to the Constitution was created to protect. A staunch supporter of having armed guards at schools is Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the NRA, as he said before a Senate Judiciary Committee, “It’s time to throw an immediate blanket if security around our children. About a third of our schools have armed security already — because it works” (LaPierre 494). The comments Wayne Lapierre has on having armed security at schools is a quick solution that does not fully account for the huge risks and liability schools will have if guns are purposely present on campuses. Allowing individuals to carry concealed, loaded guns in K-12 schools could potentially put the entire school community at risk. Why would one bring guns into to school intentionally? An analysis published by the Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics puts it clearly, “while the probability of any particular individual’s firearm to be used to harm others may be low, the magnitude of the potential harm is great. Given evidence that relaxed public carry laws are associated with higher rates of firearm related homicide, a state would be within its police power authority to restrict public carry broadly due to the increased probability and high magnitude of harm from a population perspective” (Ulrich 114). The issue with allowing school personnel to carry arms for protection into schools makes it a risk for the entire school population because it will allow for students who would want to commit a horrendous act easier access to weapons.
All students deserve safe, welcoming, supportive school environments where they can learn without fear and no parent should send his or her child to school and fear that the child may never come home. As school shooting survivors have advocated for from their own experiences not enough is being done to take care of mentally distraught students. That needs to change now.
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- LaPierre, Wayne. “What Should America Do about Gun Violence?” Elements of Argument, edited by Annette T. Rottenberg and Donna Haisty Winchell, Bedford/St. Martins, 2018, pp. 493-495.
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