In a week branded by another school shooting in which three teens died and another three teens were critically injured, another significant teen story flew under the radar. That is, that three Denver-area teens flew to Germany, en route to Syria, to join ISIS. They were disillusioned with the state of our world, our society and the shallowness of their friends, and they sought glory and meaning as budding jihadists.
I'm not diminishing the tragic shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Washington state. Rather, I'm highlighting both stories to illustrate that teen years can be troublesome. Parents sometimes don't know their own children and teens in school may love their Homecoming Prince (in the case of shooter Jaylen Fryberg) without really knowing the real person. Fryberg was the student that everyone loved, and stuck up recently for someone who was the brunt of a racial slur, but he was angry at a girl who refused to date him. He targeted the girl, his best friends, and two cousins.
The picture here is of a boy who was popular, but who, recently bullied by peers and rejected by a girl, snapped -- unable to manage his anger. The picture of the teens in Denver is of girls who were disillusioned and looking for excitement and meaning. Both cases are issues that our society -- not just parents -- need to grapple with.
The fact is there are many teens in every suburban high school in the country who fit both of these profiles. Teens in urban schools, dealing with more real-life and day-to-day survival issues, have been less likely to be school shooters or jihadists.
But every parent involved with suburban schools should be alarmed and concerned, not just for the parents and communities of the current victims, but for their own children's safety, as well. As reported by the Associated Press, Dr. Joanne Roberts, a doctor in a Marysville hospital said that, "We had dreaded this day in this community." My Note: this tragedy can happen anywhere!
Can we -- should we -- accept the chilling reality that, even with school-wide crisis drills, metal detectors, and other safety measures, a shooter somewhere in our own community is inevitable? Or are there other measures that, short of ensuring safety, can be helpful?
Since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, I have been arguing to school districts that values-based education, social-emotional learning and workshops that emphasize kindness, caring and respect ought to be components of a learning-wellness-safety continuum. We have not come far enough in recognizing this. Although many states now mandate some type of "anti-bullying" program for schools, how schools implement these (often resorting to classroom materials that teachers implement loosely, especially as there is more pressure to do pure academics) has been spotty and largely ineffective in changing school culture to impact safety.
Further, many schools -- and teachers -- are unwilling to spend money to bring in outside groups who specialize in social-emotional learning, choosing instead off-the-shelf solutions promoted by educational publishers. Now, with a new layer of Common Core standards that put more pressure on teachers to deliver pure academics, schools are even more reluctant to tradeoff academic schedules for social-emotional time.
Despite this most recent school shooting, it's unlikely that school districts will change their methodology and focus on "educating the whole child" through high school. Often, districts relegate social-emotional and wellness activities to the elementary and middle school buildings. But they should take the high school years -- and their associated maladies -- seriously, and parents and educators should demand that they do. Here are some suggestions of program concepts that schools can implement:
(1) Social-emotional Learning programs run the gamut from anger management, to mindfulness, to identifying core values and establishing peer expectations. My experience as a service deliverer in this field for twenty years tells me that the most effective programs involve both peer and teacher involvement.
In Values-in-Action Foundation's Project Love in-school programming, we empower peer core groups to develop projects that emphasize kindness, caring and respect. Students set expectations for their peer culture and, if teachers and administrators are supportive, school transformation can be amazing and significant. In my twenty years of direct experience, the only school that came close to a shooting averted the tragedy because one of our trained student leaders reported on her peers.
(2) Values-based education involves defining core values that students stand for and that can be reinforced by classroom learning, especially through history and literature and, also, in service learning exercises. I'm encouraged by the NEA's strong endorsement of teachers emphasizing shared values in the classroom!
(3) Bystander vs. Rescuer - Workshops that emphasize teens being proactive in shaping school culture and reporting on negative actions of friends and peers combine values with prevention. Dr. Mike Thomson, director of See, Share, Stop in Columbus, Ohio, provides resources to teachers and school boards to drill down to students that, "If they see something, and share something, they will stop something" negative from happening. He points out that, in all of the prior school shootings, someone who knew information could have stopped the shooter had they been a rescuer instead of a bystander. Many teens don't appreciate the difference between "ratting" and reporting.
(4) Awareness-building - Darrell Scott, father of Rachel Scott (the first person to be killed at Columbine) has travelled the world with his Rachel's Challenge assembly program since Rachel Scott was killed in 1999. He and his surrogates have spoken to twenty-one million teens, building awareness about Rachel's personal challenge to spread kindness as an antidote to violence. Hearing directly from a Columbine, Sandy Hook, or other school tragedy survivor is impactful and, I believe, can potentially dissuade a school shooter.
Many people have argued with me that you can't prevent mental illness or a deranged person from getting a gun, knife, bomb or other lethal tool. I acknowledge that mental illness remains a big problem in these cases, but I disagree that we cannot dissuade a potential shooter. People don't inherently want to be cruel or destructive, unless their anger and emotions boil over and they can't manage them. Values, the software for the mind that drive us to act positively or negatively, can be powerful foils. In their vision of life purpose, few people would envision themselves being a school shooter or jihadist. Who is the "man in the mirror" and what does he (or she) stand for is as significant an exercise for our teens as it is for the rest of society.
Teens, like all of us, want to be happy. Defining #happiness in their lives and for their schools (as well as how to manage their occasional unhappiness) is essential for them and our country. I can no longer accept that we ought to "dread" a school shooting. All of us -- and our schools and teachers -- have a responsibility to build safety, decency, civility, wellness and love into our communities. This can no longer just be the domain of family and parents. This daunting task is now equally the responsibility of our schools.
Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us
To see information about Project Love school programming, go to www.projectlove.org