Strengthening schools, or should we be eliminating threat of shootings?

Posted 8/10/22


The RI Department of Education recently completed All Hazards Site Safety Survey Reports for all schools in the State.  A number of recommendations were made for each …

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Strengthening schools, or should we be eliminating threat of shootings?


The RI Department of Education recently completed All Hazards Site Safety Survey Reports for all schools in the State.  A number of recommendations were made for each building to “strengthen” each school.  Warwick and other districts are currently planning new construction and the issue of “strengthened”’ schools is a significant priority. 

Safety, in light of the recent school shootings, is on everyone’s mind.  Most of the focus is on “strengthening” school buildings.  Interestingly enough, little mention has been made of eliminating the threat.

In reality, the protection of children should have less focus on protecting schools from the threat of mass shooters and much more to do with eliminating or minimizing the threat.  Mass shooters, all of them, were once students.  Mass shooters are young men, with mental health issues, who have felt disrespected or maligned by their schools or fellow students.  Bullying and suspensions have been cited as the motivation for murdering multiple students.

Teachers and principals, with the support of parents, can protect schools from mass shooters. There are children in all schools with behavior/impulse control issues.  These children are often the bane of a teacher’s existence.  They disrupt classes.  They are often either bullied or the bully.  They are frequently sent to your office for “discipline.”  Ultimately, they have to be sent. back to class.  Fifth graders cannot be expelled.

There is science behind the behavior/impulse control issue.  Children, especially those being raised in a poverty environment, are under continuous stress.  Stress causes the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol - the “fight or flight” hormone.  It creates brain and body responses designed to remove one from danger.  Children living in poverty are under constant stress - food and housing uncertainty, stressed parents more likely to use harsh parenting techniques, even something as simple as not having the “right” clothes.  Constant stress creates toxic levels of cortisol which impairs brain development - the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus atrophy and the amygdala becomes dominant. The results are a child with impaired concentration, short term memory and behavior/impulse control.  

The dominant amygdala creates more problems.  In a child with normal brain development, the amygdala may sense danger - such as being sent to the principal’s office. This danger is assessed by the prefrontal cortex.  If the danger is perceived as real and imminent, there is a fight or flight reaction..  If, however, the prefrontal cortex determines a fight or flight response is inappropriate, or even counterproductive, the prefrontal cortex creates a rational response.  In a child who has been damaged by toxic cortisol, the amygdala overrides the prefrontal cortex so that every perception of danger results in a fight or flight response. A classic example is the number of men who when confronted by a police officer, rather than responding rationally, respond by fighting or fleeing. Many end up dead as a result.

How do teachers address toxic cortisol so as to minimize the damage it creates?  There is one natural antidote to cortisol overloads - nurturing.  For children living in poverty, the school may offer the most opportunities to be nurtured since their parents, who themselves may have been raised in poverty, may have little experience or limited time for nurturing.

While parents should be expected to play a pivotal role in identifying and seeking help for children showing evidence of violent behaviors, parents are often a part of the problem.  It is they who buy the guns, including assault rifles, and who ignore the violence promoting websites their children become influenced by.  Nurturing should be a parental responsibility, however, if the nurturing is missing or inappropriate, such as providing assault weapons, a child with violent tendencies may result.

The children needing the most nurturing in school may be the children least likely to get nurtured.  As mentioned above, they are often the bane of a teacher’s existence.  They may be hard to like for any number of reasons.  When corrected they may respond inappropriately - reacting with a fight or flight response. 

Something that can be done?  Every day, if appropriate multiple times per day, teachers can have a positive interaction with their most problematic students - a kind word, a pat on the back.  Children crave nurturing.  Some children get very edgy prior to weekends or school vacations.  Their primary source of nurturing may well be the school.

A child who feels nurtured will respond more positively to directions from a nurturer lest they lose their source of nurturing.  Children who feel nurtured in school have fewer behavior/impulse control issues because the toxic cortisol and its brain damage are being abated by the nurturing.

An NPR report on school shooters notes seventy five percent report being bullied or harassed in school.  The report  ends with, “Time and time again, psychologists and educators have found that surrounding a young person with the right kind of support and supervision early on can turn most away from violence.  Connecting with these students, listening to them and supporting them, getting them the help they need, these researchers say, can help prevent future attacks and make schools a safer place for all children.”

Which gets us back to the original point - school safety.  Young people who have felt nurtured, supported and respected by their schools and classmates do not return to those schools with semiautomatic weapons. 

Joseph H. Crowley is a former principal/director in Warwick and Past president, RI Association of School Principals.


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