The hard truth about keeping guns out of schools

Our view: Metal detectors are no panacea; schools need to make it easier for students to report troubling behavior among their peers

September 15, 2012

Baltimore County parents and teachers are understandably uneasy about the safety of their children in the wake of recent back-to-back incidents involving students bringing guns to school. Last week an eighth-grader at Stemmers Run Middle School in Essex allegedly threatened his teacher and classmates with a handgun, and in August a shotgun-wielding Perry Hall High School student seriously injured another student on the first day of school. Several more threats — all, thankfully, false alarms — were made this week.

Twice this year, school employees managed to seize the weapons before more harm was done, but relying on the bravery of educators isn't a strategy any of us is comfortable with. County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and Superintendent Dallas Dance pledged to beef up security around schools and issue a revised crisis plan for the system, but the problem — as both have recognized — isn't as simple as just putting metal detectors at the entrances. To be effective, educators must find better ways to spot kids who might be contemplating violence so they can intervene before it occurs, and for that they'll need to take into account the psychology behind such attacks.

While it's nearly impossible to predict precisely which of the hundreds of students at a school will actually resort to violence, the factors motivating those who do are fairly well understood. Contrary to the popular stereotype of school shooters as angry loners, they are rather "failed joiners" who are hoping to impress their peers. These are kids who have been repeatedly frustrated in their attempts to fit in and who see violence as the only way of raising their esteem in the eyes of others. Their desire for attention is so overwhelming that they'd rather be regarded as notorious anti-heroes than as "losers."

That's why when they do resort to violence, the act is rarely spontaneous. Shooters don't "snap" because of their social isolation but instead carefully plan their attacks, sometimes months in advance. Researchers have found that there's almost always a trail of warnings, veiled suggestions and complaints preceding their outbursts. The warnings are their way of trying to solve a problem of social acceptance, and the more attention they get by telegraphing those feelings the more attention they crave, until finally only the act itself will satisfy them.

This is one reason why such incidents often seem to occur in clusters. They're not exactly copy-cat crimes, but boys especially take their lessons from a pop culture that glorifies violence as a way of distinguishing oneself and winning peer acceptance. If a gun incident at one school is widely publicized, it may lower the threshold of anxiety and ambivalence for others who are experiencing similar feelings and embolden their own attention-grabbing fantasies. (Somewhat counter-intuitively, these youngsters generally aren't motivated primarily by a desire to hurt others but rather to win recognition and respect.)

Given the stakes involved in any gun incident at school, it's understandable that parents often demand a get-tough approach to the problem. Likewise, politicians tend to respond with the kind of highly visible measures — more police patrols around schools, metal detectors at the doors — that demonstrate their awareness of community concerns. But given the complexity of shooters' motives and the difficulty of predicting which students will be involved, a purely law-enforcement approach is problematic at best.

School ID badges, metal detectors and wands, and a larger police presence are all relatively quick fixes designed to keep out intruders who don't belong in a school. The problem is that the kids who are most likely to commit gun crimes are a threat precisely because they already belong to the school community. They're not outsiders but insiders who can't negotiate the existing social network.

A better approach is for schools to make it much easier for students to alert authorities to troubling behavior by their peers. Students almost always know what is happening before the adults supervising them do, and schools need to take advantage of information they have that could help short circuit an attack before it occurs. But to make that strategy work, kids have to learn to interpret the warning signs of violence and know that if they come forward they'll be treated seriously, that their confidences will remain private and that they won't be penalized for false alarms.

Schools can facilitate such conversations by setting up hotlines where students can report troubling behavior and by making available counselors who let it be known that they do private consultations. School staff can't be expected to monitor all the social media sites that allow students to express their private thoughts and feelings, but they can do a better job facilitating the kind of frank exchanges that can warn of an attack.

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