School Violence: Expert Advice on What Can Be Done

From the WebMD Archives

March 13, 2001 -- Over the last few years -- with all-too-frequent regularity -- we've seen violent acts committed in schools across the country. In the wake of the recent Santana High School attack, there are more reports of rumors, threats, and incidents of kids bringing weapons to class. What can be done about this national problem? For answers, WebMD turned to three of the nation's experts on school violence.

When you've finished reading, you'll be able to weigh in with your own opinions by sending a letter to the editor.

Paul J. Fink, MD, is a professor of psychiatry at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, past president of the American Psychiatric Association, and chair of the association's task force on psychiatric aspects of violence.

Leon Hoffman, MD, is a child psychoanalyst and co-director of the New York Psychoanalytic Society's Parent-Child Center.

Suzanne Hoffman, PhD, is a psychologist with Baron Center in San Diego, Calif., a counseling center that specializes in school violence prevention. She was among those called in after the Columbine incident.

Kids have always been bullied at school, and adolescence has never been easy. Why are we now, at this time in America, seeing such a huge wave of school shootings?

Fink: These are kids who are troubled for a number of reasons, not just from being bullied. Most of them have had a traumatic situation or some deprivation -- something -- in their home lives. [Because] they come from nice, middle-class homes does not mean there isn't potential for a lot of deprivation. You drive by these nice homes, and you don't know what's going on behind the shutters. There can be physical or sexual abuse, neglect. Kids may be treated badly in many ways, and we just don't know it.

There's also an enormous amount of imitation -- a lot of copycat incidents. Plus, there's a growing sense of what kids are learning from TV and video games -- that the way to solve a problem is to kill somebody. There's nothing about conflict resolution; no sense of morality; no fear of sanctions, of consequences -- just real negativity, a sense that this is the way you deal with people you don't like: You blow them away.

And the very availability of guns is a major problem. It's very easy for young people to acquire a gun. Ask any kid in high school. People out there will sell a semiautomatic weapon for $50 to $100 just to get rid of it. And an estimated 150,000 kids take guns to school every day. It's not a small issue. It's hard to tell you how awful, how dangerous, this situation is.

L. Hoffman: Kids with troubles read about these incidents and see an amount of glorification -- that people won't listen to me now, maybe they'll listen to me this way. But why one kid does something like this and another kid doesn't ... it's very individual. Predicting it is like predicting the weather. Little changes that go on in a kid's life can lead to good consequences or bad consequences.

Teasing is a very common factor in these incidents. Teasing can be very, very destructive. In a school where I do consultations, teasing is absolutely forbidden. As soon as it happens, the teacher stops the activity and talks about it with the students: "How would you feel if somebody teased you? Can you imagine how the other kid feels if you tease him?" Teasing has to be dealt with as a group situation.

S. Hoffman: Easy access to weapons; kids feeling alienated and bullied at school, misunderstood by the people around them -- those are just some of the causes. Kids are also exposed to violence in the media and video games, which may desensitize them to the realities of those actions. And these kids don't see any alternative. They see violence as a way of resolving their own internal pain.

What can parents do to make the situation better?

Fink: Poor parenting is part of this issue. My advice to parents is to pay attention, listen to their children. Hear their pain; listen to their complaints. At the Columbine incident, a ... kid was warned that there would be a shooting. Also, parents have to be vigilant, have to watch what their kids are doing. We want to allow children to grow up and be free, but we have to watch what they are watching, their Internet access, the Game Boys.

L. Hoffman: Probably the most important lesson for parents -- and teachers, too -- is to listen to kids. These are kids who are in tremendous pain. It's the internal pain that really gets them going -- the need to undo that internal pain. We underestimate the power of listening and saying 'I'm going to help you,' and when necessary, referring them for professional help.

Frustration and self-esteem are also big issues. Even something that seems innocuous -- like those candles on a birthday cake that you can't blow out -- a kid can feel very frustrated by that. A sensitive kid can feel like 'they're playing too many tricks on me.' It's the kind of thing parents have to watch. And teasing, again -- the hostile element of teasing is very overt -- it can especially affect sensitive kids, affect their self-esteem. Their reactions to bad situations may be to do something very grandiose. Like the Rambo movies: 'I'm going to go out and shoot all the bad people.' That's a grandiose response against feeling so weak inside.

Shaming is another issue. When something minor happens, parents need to speak to their kids, but it's another thing to make a kid very ashamed -- [to feel] that they're a terrible person for doing this minor thing. It doesn't have to do with strictness; it has to do with emotional communication that a parent has with a child. 'I may be punishing you, I may be setting limits, but I still respect you as a person.'

S. Hoffman: Parents need to be very alert to what their kids are doing. It's not easy -- being a teenager is a time when kids want to push parents away, do their own thing, live their own lives. But parents must find a way to stay involved. They need to know their kids' peers, what they're doing, that they are supervised. They need to be there for their kids and listen. They also need to talk to kids about the issue of violence. Ask their kids: "What would [you] do if a peer was thinking about it? Would you come to me, to someone at your school?" Help kids identify a plan. And talk to the schools -- what are they doing?

What can schools do?

Fink: There are 22 high schools in Philadelphia, and they all have metal detectors. It's the most humiliating thing. Can you imagine kids lining up at 8:30 am in front of metal detector every day? Yet they're not addressing the major problems related to youth violence.

There need to be dialogues between teachers and children about feelings, issues, values -- not Christian values necessarily, just good moral standards. Schools need to address the needs of children with access to the Internet. There's also the problem of kids who just don't get along with their teachers. In many schools, the teacher is always considered to be right, and the student is always wrong. It's a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

I do not believe that schools should be punitive. In the Santana High School incident, they're keeping kids who knew the boy [was talking about committing the assault] out of school. That is excess punishment of innocent people. These kids need attention, love; they need to be put to positive tasks.

Multiple suspensions, truancy -- those are the earliest signs school officials should look for. There should be some assessment of parents' involvement. When parents are antagonistic toward the school, they train their kids to be antagonistic. Those parents are hurtful to the child and school, and it's the child who is hurt in the long run.

L. Hoffman: Schools must have a very strict policy about teasing -- that it is not allowed and that teachers need to have a group discussion about it with the children. Also, teachers should not let themselves get involved when teasing occurs. It's very easy for bystanders to get vicarious gratification in watching others get teased. That's what slapstick comedy is all about. Teachers cannot let that happen. Teachers have to make sure they communicate a value of respect among all the kids. Whenever any teasing does happen, they must deal with it immediately.

Schools need to really listen to kids who communicate a problem and if necessary, refer them for professional evaluation either within or outside the school. These are troubled kids, angry kids; they're not "bad" kids. It's not a group phenomenon.

S. Hoffman: One of most important things schools can do is educate kids about the importance of reporting threats and setting up a system for kids to do that -- an anonymous 800 number. San Diego has a tip number for drugs and violence, and I've heard it's been successful. Also, make sure kids know the importance of reporting.

What can students do?

Fink: They have to learn not to keep secrets. If they think there's a problem, they have to alert people, not try to solve problems themselves or keep quiet. Go to a school counselor, parents, the kid's parents, the principal -- somebody who can help them.

S. Hoffman: Students might think it won't happen in their school, that a student is just kidding. But they need to know the warning signs and report any threat, even if they don't think it's real -- just report what they hear. They don't need to be in a position of evaluating. Experts in the school can make that determination.

L. Hoffman: In a well-functioning school, the kid who does the teasing, the kid being teased, the kid who bullies, the kid who is bullied are not dealt with individually but are dealt with in a group. 'Look what happened when you pushed so-and-so around.' It then becomes a group situation, without identifying good guys and bad guys. It becomes a part of the group identity. It's all about helping kids develop their empathy toward another human being, and that's often very hard for them to do.

What can society do?

Fink: The problem we have now is that we're in a very punitive mood. We want to lock them up and throw away the key. We want retribution. There has to be some understanding that there are many, many damaged children. We need to help them now, not wait 'til they hurt someone. It comes down to the parents. It's like I said; they need to be listening and talking to their kids more. But we also need parenting education -- teaching people how to be good parents. We have a program like that here in Philadelphia. We need to help these kids as early in their lives as possible.

L. Hoffman: With instantaneous media, the contagion effect [and] imitation are both factors. And now there is the technical ability to manipulate images in TV and videos -- seemingly bringing people back to life. If kids have trouble differentiating their fantasies from reality, they're not necessarily aware that after all this shooting, someone cannot come out and make a new movie -- that shooting is a final act. There have always been stories of good guys and bad guys, but for the kid at home watching TV all day -- whose parents aren't there, who have no limits -- the fantasies take hold. The kid's inability to differentiate fantasy from reality becomes a real problem.

S. Hoffman: Society as a whole probably needs to look at the issue of gun control and access. We need to look at staying connected with kids, giving them options when they're feeling stressed or alienated -- counseling options, adults available to talk. And we as a society need to look at examples of violence in the media, video games, movies, etc. We may need to examine our value system as a society and make choices about what's most important.