On June 14, 2013, the nation paused to pray and remember the unspeakably horrific shooting, a massacre that claimed 26 lives, on December 14, 2012, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown Connecticut. The cruel irony, as legions of the country's experts, myself included, continue to engage in differential diagnoses and soul-searching for answers as to who and what went wrong, is that Sandy Hook Elementary School probably could not have done anything more, different or better, to protect its students. Short of constructing a walled-in campus inside of which students would receive provisions and other necessities from the outside.
Knowing that most school violence acts are not caused by "outsiders" but are wielded by well-known-but, arguably, not well-liked-students on campus, the Sandy Hook Elementary staff worked daily to create an open, salubrious and tolerant campus climate of kindness and respect over bullying, for example. The administration imposed lockdown drills that trained everyone to stay low and be quiet in the event of an emergency. A state-of-the-art security system was introduced there in 2012, scant months before the massacre; it required visitors to ring a bell, sign-in and, optionally, to produce a photo ID. Each morning, after 9:30 a.m., the doors were locked. But for all their efforts, Sandy Hook Elementary administrators and teachers are now renowned for being employed at a campus increasingly regarded as the Pearl Harbor of school shootings.
Many school administrators, aware that (1) their school boards are holding their feet to the fire and withholding long- and even short-term contracts until immediate security and safety improvements are seen on their campuses; and (2) attorneys are "poised overhead like carrion, to strip and de-bone us financially" (one administrator's angry words to me), are worried about the potential impacts on their careers if they cannot satisfy their school boards' demands and avert lawsuits. Other school administrators are cynical about what was-as one school's lawyer declared, at a MCLE training I was conducting-the "toppling of a Utopia" (Sandy Hook Elementary), previously thought to be a virtual fortress yet easily entered by one of its ex-students, the now-notorious Adam Lanza. Despite mental impairments, he arrived at the Sandy Hook Elementary campus with weapons previously believed to be commonly unavailable and familiar solely to an exclusive and elite cadre of veteran sharpshooters: CIA gunners.
In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, the nation's press corps began scouring the country, searching out schools with "perfectly secure" campuses. Media found some hardware-heavy schools with windows fortified by bullet- and shatter-proof glass, and others with high-tech electronically-screened entry ways and auto-locking doors. Still other schools were found to have state-of-the-art cameras, customized wrought-iron fencing and gates, and one-way window panes blocking see-through, two-way viewing. Some school districts, the press corps noted, had been in earnest talks with firms that provided both security equipment for the banking industry and military-style protection for corporate executives. In light of the fact that in the past five years, certain student-driven fatalities claiming the lives of school principals were found to have been deliberate acts of homicide (shockingly, one school administrator's death was noted by police as "an assassination"), few in the press corps questioned certain school districts' decisions to judge their schools as encampments best protected by companies proudly touting that their expertise in security lay in their "field" experience as armed forces special operatives, formerly on active duty.
1) Do the security accoutrements described above impede outsider access? YES.
2) Do such security enhancements protect students? SOMEWHAT.
3) Does such high-tech security gear guarantee such schools will enjoy permanent safety and security for their students? NO.
4) Do such modern and necessary security measures alter student behavior that drives violence? NO.
5) Do these sophisticated security devices detect states of mind, anti-social attitudes and their correlative behaviors that might potentially threaten the safety of other students? NO.
6) Can school districts and their administrators still be sued in spite of making huge financial investments to improve the safety and security of their campuses and the welfare of their students? YES.
7) Are there other variables that exist in school districts and on campuses that are exposed to litigation-minded plaintiffs' hurt and grieving and wanting "justice"? YES.
School violence is a public health problem that must be viewed and addressed in the same way that medical doctors view the etiology of disease and patient care. It is a social curse and it is not going away. Although attempts to deal with deadly threats are often frustrating, the costs of giving up and doing nothing far outweigh efforts to understand the germ, corral the virus, and succeed in sterilizing the bacterium. School shootings forcibly remind school principals to review their safety plans; install formal school safety training calendars for all staff; establish periodic crisis training drills; collaborate regularly with local law enforcement; develop new rules for campus safety management; hire new security resource officers (SROs); and comprehensively evaluate all safety strategies and programs, improving them, and throwing out what does not work. Today's principals know all too well that, despite the national debate on gun control, shooters' mental health issues, and homegrown terrorism, it is they who are the public face of school safety to whom grieving parents and their attorneys turn to for any and all answers in the aftermaths of campus tragedies.
School principals are quickly learning that when two students have a fight on campus, rather than suspend both of them under the popular and archaic "mutual combatants" policy, it is both prudent and vital to find out if something deeper is at work: Bullying? Gang activity? Racial discrimination? Harassment over one's sexual preference? An attorney asked me to consult on a case where a certain southern United States school's campus was rife with a rumor that two male students were going to fight because one purportedly bragged he had kissed the other. The vice principal was overheard to tell the eventual victim-student that he had to "Learn to man up," that "Kids, here, will eat you alive." Later, somebody else saw him talking to the eventual combatants and telling them, "Don't you fight here!", tacit approval to proceed with the fight but to take it elsewhere.
Dr. James E. Shaw teaches university doctoral students who are studying for their Psy.D. degrees and state licensing in Psychology. He is a member of the Panel of Experts of the Los Angeles Superior Court, and also serves on the faculty of the United States Court Public Defender Training Branch. He is an Expert Witness who has a fairly large media profile on NBC, CNN, CBS, ABC, and FOX News, as a result of his having been a public school administrator and also his nationally-acclaimed book, Jack and Jill, Why They Kill, used in colleges and universities nationwide. His expertise is, and his Civil Court testimony has been, in School Safety; Juvenile Violence; Personal Injury/Wrongful Death; and Mandated Reporting of Child Abuse. He works with lawyers nationwide. He was one of the keynote speakers at the Columbine High School memorial ceremonies honoring the slain students. He is also the author of a State of California-approved middle- and high-school violence prevention and education curriculum, B.R.A.V.E. ("Be Resilient Avoid Violence Everywhere"). In addition, he provides lesson plans for the internationally-renowned teacher's website, www.teacherspayteachers.com.
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