School shootings: how parents can encourage children to report threats

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The 18-year-old gunman who murdered 19 elementary students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, telegraphed his obsession with violence in social media posts and posts in the days and weeks leading up to the May 24 shooting , threatening girls with rape, for example, or posting photographs of the semi-automatic rifles he had purchased.

But almost none of the other teens who saw those communications disclosed them, reports from The Washington Post and The New York Times reported. “Kids joke around like that,” a girl who saw the shooter making threats on a platform called Yubo told The Washington Post.

Neither situation is unusual, according to the US Secret Service, which through its National Threat Assessment Center has studied how to prevent violence in schools for more than 20 years. A 2019 Secret Service review of 41 incidents of school violence found that 83% of attackers made verbal, written, visual or video communications about their plans – a behavior known as “leaking”. In many of these cases, according to the report, the people who observed the threatening communications did not act.

How to talk to your kids about school shootings

The reasons students may not share this information are varied, experts said. Justifications include reluctance to “report”, dismissing a threat because it is unspecific or because the adolescent is not sure the other person is serious, fear for their own safety or the habit of violence she sees online.

Early intervention, however, is the cornerstone of the Behavioral Threat Assessment Strategy for Schools the Secret Service developed in 2018, and the agency says students are in the best position to identify and report behaviors. about their peers. NTAC Chief Lina Alathari said the Secret Service encourages schools “to make sure they empower students to provide information not only about specific threats, but also about some of the behaviors we see. in the antecedents of bullying students”. include bullying, self-harm, depression, suicidal tendencies, and increased interest in previous attacks and mass shooters.

Alathari said parents can play a role in discussing troubling communications and behaviors with their children. We spoke to him and other experts about how parents can approach these conversations.

Parents can try to circumvent teens’ code of silence by emphasizing that safety issues, such as violence or suicide, “must be reported absolutely,” said Courtenay McCarthy, a school psychologist on the team. Security response and support for Oregon. Salem-Keizer Public School District. The district has established a threat assessment system adopted by school districts across the country.

“We know the kids won’t bring it all back,” McCarthy said. “They’re probably not going to report their friends using drugs. But we can help them understand that when it comes to life and death matters, they need to report it.

It is also important for parents to clarify that their child does not need to report the information to their. “Some kids are very comfortable talking to their parents about all these issues, and some aren’t. So I really think parents just need to send the message to their kids that an adult needs to know,” McCarthy said.

Carrie James, senior research associate at Harvard’s Project Zero, which studies parenting issues, suggested that parents help children identify two to three trusted adults they could turn to – such as a teacher, a coach, a counselor – even if the parent is not on this list.

Many states, such as Oregon, have anonymous tip lines. It can be more helpful, however, if the kids are willing to come forward, McCarthy said: “We tend to get better information when we can ask questions about the situation and refer back if we have more questions.” She added that her team engages in “creative problem solving” to maintain the anonymity of teens who report.

Alathari said the Secret Service recommends that school districts establish “a centralized reporting mechanism” so students can provide information anonymously. The gold standard, she said, is Safe2tell, a 24-hour reporting system created by Colorado authorities after the Columbine shootings. In the last full pre-pandemic school year, 2018 to 2019, he received 19,861 actionable reports. Suicide threats were the most frequently reported tip category, with drugs, bullying and self-harm being among the other top categories.

As for reporting problematic posts on a social media platform, as some teenagers have tried to do in the case of the Uvalde shooter, “I think it’s an extra step to take, but it shouldn’t be the only step people take.” said McCarthy. “Ultimately, this information needs to get to the authorities who can do something about it.”

This information does not need to be a specific threat to be shared, McCarthy said. “If you see a picture of a gun that says, ‘I’m ready for school,’ that’s not an overt threat, but it’s veiled and it’s concerning.” Other things that are of concern are fixations on guns, violent events, criminals or school shootings, or access to lethal weapons.

“The holistic nature of a behavioral threat assessment model is to identify students who are distressed or exhibiting behavior of concern,” Alathari said. Once these students are identified, a multidisciplinary team including teachers, administrators, counselors, and resource officers will gather more information, assess risk, and put in place interventions to help the student.

According to the National Association of State Boards of Education, 18 states require school districts to have a threat assessment system, 16 have uncodified policies, and five encourage districts to institute systems. McCarthy encourages parents whose districts don’t have such a system to advocate for one.

Parents should keep in mind that threats and behaviors that are obviously worrisome to adults may not be so clear to teens, experts said. “Our research shows that it would really be a mistake to think that teenagers can always, in turn, interpret online messages or posts accurately,” said James, co-author with Emily Weinstein, of the forthcoming book. “Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (And Adults Are Missing).” Sometimes, even often, they don’t really know what a joke, a cry for help, or a real, credible threat of violence is. .”

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Clinical psychologist Lisa Coyne said that by expecting teens to know what to report, “we’re asking them to do something really hard, which is to understand that a statement like that- this, or fixation, or discussion of guns or other things that have been so frighteningly normalized in much of our culture means something bad is about to happen. With all the messages teens are inundated with, she asked, “How do you tell signal from noise?”

She suggests that a parent say to a child who might see things online, “‘I want you to feel like you’re coming in safe as a parent and even asking me about it, and we we will understand it. together,” she said. Then, she said, it’s important to engage in “very, very good reflective listening, collaborative communication and empathy, rather than immediately jumping into problem solving”.

Parents can help teens assess upsetting posts by asking questions such as whether the communications are part of a pattern of the person posting, or whether the peer has friends or a community like a sports team. Worried teens can also turn to their own friends, who might have different information, “to really better understand what’s going on,” James said.

In an interview with The Washington Post, one of the girls who was harassed by Uvalde’s shooter but didn’t report it said she thought it was “how bad online,” as if threats and harassment were the price to pay for being on social media. .

“To a certain extent, I understand what they’re saying,” McCarthy said. “I think children are exposed to a lot of disturbing content.” She recommended that parents look at surveillance apps for young children and that older children take “digital citizenship lessons”, such as the program put in place by Common Sense Media.

Parents can help their kids set boundaries online by talking about these concerns from a young age, just as they do when it comes to safe touching, McCarthy said. For example, “’This is what a safe relationship looks like. These are relationships that might not be safe: If someone talks about hurting other people, hurting you, hurting themselves. This is something an adult should know. ”

One thing parents shouldn’t do, experts say, is shy away from talking about these issues with their children for fear of adding to their anxiety about school shootings or internet dangers. Parents can teach their children by example, modeling “that things can be scary and you can deal with them,” Coyne said.

Parents can also help ease their children’s anxieties about school shootings by focusing on data, McCarthy said. “I think kids need to understand that even if these things happen, they’re incredibly rare. So just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s probable.

It is also important, she added, to help children understand all the systems in place to keep them safe, and that they can play a role in this. “When, you know, there are personal actions you can take to protect yourself,” McCarthy said, “it helps you have a better sense of psychological safety, to feel more confident in your ability to deal with circumstances.”

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