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Identifying red flags prevents school violence

Recently, public discourse has begun to emphasize mental health challenges as the source of mass shootings. Prevention science specifies interventions, and identifying red flags and significant needs. These are clear solutions.

We need to prevent violence when and where we can, using research-proven techniques. For example, while working as a school psychologist in Colorado, I spearheaded a very successful violence prevention program called “I Can Problem Solve,” which taught children to use critical thinking skills in their relationships as well as in academic endeavors. The program offered specific language and tools, and included lessons on empathy. One of the exercises emphasized other people’s perspectives with questions such as, what would make a firefighter angry? What would make a grandmother angry?

“I Can Problem Solve,” which focuses on how to think, not what to think, was awarded a large grant by the Colorado Department of Education. We implemented this program, designated “exemplary” by the U.S. Department of Justice because it measurably improved not only student behavioral and social/emotional outcomes, but also academic achievement. We already have effective programs that lead to violence reduction; we need to commit to implementing them.

And we need to continue to invest in prevention.

We can intervene early by identifying red flags in public school systems and with combined efforts in our medical and religious communities. Red flags include broad statements of hostility, leaking hints about plans, fixation on previous mass shootings and high-conflict interpersonal relationships, which includes being victims of bullying.

There is increasing public pressure on schools to intervene in bullying, a clear trigger for many aggressors. Colorado has waived immunity for schools if they fail to exercise “reasonable care” to protect all students, faculty and staff from “reasonably foreseeable” acts. This specifically allows for financial damages “where the duty of reasonable care has been breached by a school district, charter school or their employees.” The public is emphatic that bullying is not to be ignored or downplayed.

Colorado provides an easy opportunity for all of us to notify authorities about red flags we observe. Safe2Tell allows for anonymous reports of “anything that concerns or threatens you, your friends, your family or your community.” Safe2Tell forwards these reports to school and/or law enforcement officials, and verifies response.

Last week, major Republican donors joined other conservative Texans in signing an open letter endorsing the creation of red-flag laws, expanding background checks and raising the age to purchase a gun to 21. This letter ran as a full-page ad in The Dallas Morning News. Polls consistently show more than 90% of Americans support universal background checks. It’s crucial that we improve the background-check system to prevent deadly incidents.

But we can’t stop there. Gun safety/safe storage is more important now than ever. We clearly understand that there is a copycat effect to these mass shootings.

Americans are beginning to recognize we are suffering from what John Pavlovitz, a writer, pastor and activist in Wake Forest, North Carolina, calls “cruelty sickness” to include unrelenting bad news, predatory behavior and attacks on decency.” We have a cultural fascination with sociopaths and deviant behavior, evidenced in a multitude of TV shows. This has cleared the way for greatly increased predation.

By giving sociopaths our attention, we need to recognize we are rewarding them and their exploitative behavior.

We need to understand that to enhance freedom for everyone, we must reduce fear and distrust in daily interactions. We must prevent violence. This starts at school with prevention science and all the solutions it holds.

Laurie Roberts is a nationally certified school psychologist living in Bayfield. To contact Safe2Tell, call 1-877-542-safe.