Written by Anita Pilkerton-Plumb, MSW, LCSW. Published at www.onewhoplantsseeds.net. Contact Anita at 717.850.8780
Another crucial step to prevent school shootings
One day after the Parkland, Florida school shooting, a middle school teacher contacted me looking for advice. Less than 24 hours after the shooting, a student entered her classroom and imitated a shooter, using his arms and hands to mimic an assault rifle and his mouth to spew rapid-fire bullet sounds at his peers. Sent to an alternative school in his elementary years for consistent ‘acting out’ behavior, this 12-year-old already has a history, a reputation, and likely is very aware of this. My friend was shaken, and tasked with what consequences are appropriate. In her words, “I don’t want him to stand a chance at becoming yesterday’s murderer.” What she means is how do we keep him from becoming tomorrow’s murderer. And, how does she simultaneously contribute to keeping the rest of her school safe?
My gut response to her was this:
Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of in-school or out-of-school suspension, there was in-school and out-of-school caring intervention? Visualize this. The child returns to school and is put in a quiet room, but not one in which he is to stare at the walls, do extra school work without support, or be consistently reprimanded for talking/snoozing/not sitting still. Instead, the student is visited throughout the day by teachers, staff and counselors who sit at his level, make good eye contact and tell him how good he is, not how bad he is…but how inherently good. The staff digs deep, and they search for the time that he opened a door for a peer, the time he asked a question in class (any question), perhaps the one time he stopped a behavior when asked. An administrator searches records and talks to earlier teachers when possible. They seek kindergarten records that show his early strengths. His counselor comes in to talk to him about job opportunities that exist for students with high energy, creativity, and limelight-seeking behavior. The school musical director talks to him about a part in the upcoming production, and the cafeteria supervisor talks to him about who he sits with at lunch. Community mentors come in to speak to him about his aspirations, what he would do if there were no barriers, and what they can offer him after school. He is referred to the Student Assistance Program and connected with a school mentor who helps him come up with a plan for days when impulse control and focus are difficult. The student begins the day with a journal in which he writes what he is thinking and feeling (that will probably be anger and that the intervention is stupid….that is to be expected.) It might be surprising, though, how his writing changes through the day, through this intensive caring intervention.
As a clinical social worker, I conducted a similar type of exercise in a group setting several years ago. Students with anger management issues were partnered with school staff. Through a structured activity, the staff encouraged and bolstered the students with their strengths. We observed how difficult it was for students to accept this validation, and how easy it was for staff to identify strengths when given the time and directive to do so.
I work with many children who were exposed to drugs prenatally, experienced early trauma, and/or have brains wired for attention, focus and developmental challenges. They have trouble connecting with others, and they are often yearning for attention. But, what kind of attention do we want to give them? People have described the most recent teen shooter as “weird”. Other shooter descriptions over the years? Isolated, bullied, disturbed. How often do we hear that a shooter was connected, supported, engaged, respected and valued? Hm, that’s Interesting.
Anita Pilkerton-Plumb, MSW, LCSW
Anita Pilkerton-Plumb is a licensed clinical social worker in Pennsylvania who works with children, teens, adults, and families. She has counseled privately for 17 years, and spent 10 years prior working with adolescents and elementary-aged children in school and community settings. Her experience includes assisting middle-schoolers in anger management classes. In addition to helping young people identify sources of anger and healthy coping strategies, she also helps them see their strengths, connect with adults, and find their positive purpose within their school community.