School Shootings and Inciting Incidents: Be Aware of Trending in a Kid’s Life

In the past few days we have witnessed yet another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in Colorado, and yet another reflection of what is going on in the private worlds of some of our students. What will it take before we respond  with a national approach to creating school environments where we can help students such as these?

Another incidence of school violence: what will be the last straw before we act?

Arapahoe school shooting
Karl Pierson’s barrage of gunfire hit Claire Davis in the head. (Source: Denver Post

I have read several reports on the Arapahoe High School incident and some of the comments about the motives of the shooter, who eventually turned the gun on himself. Obviously, no one will ever really know the motivations of 18-year-old Karl Pierson. Armed with a shotgun, machete and 3 molotov cocktails, and a very clear objective to shoot his debate coach, Tracy Murphy, he intended a great deal of harm to anyone who would impede his intention.

But how does Pierson spiral down from being angry about a disciplinary action to this level of violence? Did we miss something here?

Because of how different students react to different situations, our teachers and administrators are dealing with a myriad of issues every day that could turn volatile at any moment. We can’t be numb to this possibility.

Dealing with so many students each with different ways of reflecting frustrations, pain and dysfunctions, it is just really hard to know what some students are capable of. Knowing what I know about schools and the hundreds of issues that teachers and administrators face each and every day, we really are limited in predicting severe incidents.

This young man was intelligent, assertive in public debate, and had strong political opinions. Additionally, this story held a common thread that appears in many of these student-turned-violent situations: Pierson was known to be picked on by his peers. In fact, it appears that he was transferred from another school to Arapahoe High School to avoid such teasing and bullying.

Evidence shows some warning signs were there, but probably not enough to raise concerns that he might actually kill someone.

Person was labeled as a bit weird. Many attested that he was a nice and quiet young man. Some said he had a volatile temper, and someone else noted that he was driving at fast speeds in his car in a dangerous way.

Further investigation about this young man and his private world may reveal a whole new perspective on who he was and what lead up to this explosive action. This student will likely have had significant hidden issues with few telltale signs that he was heading in a bad direction.

However, once again we will find out that his beliefs were shaped by many of his life experiences and messages given to him.

We already know the holiday season compels people to reflect on their lives.

For teenagers who may be teased, picked on or bullied by their peers, this time of year can exagerate their anxiety, depression, or anger or elicit a need to retaliate. Even if the student is feeling incapable of violence, the easy accessibility of guns and weapons like Molotov cocktails furnish them with a false sense of power over their perceived oppressors.

All of this tells us that as parents, friends, school staff and others who have relationships with teenagers that we should be very aware of trending in a kid’s life. If a tween or teen is extremely outspoken, critical, being teased or bullied and then recedes into a very quiet existence, it is almost certain he or she may be experiencing issues that could turn volatile.

Consequently, it is important to check their social media activity, continue to build a communication-bridge, and find ways to engage them in a group or individual process where a trained professional can help them.

Caring relationships are so vital to help situations like this.

We must be vigilant in what we know. Observe clues that there just may be something we need to be concerned about. Then, if so, check a bit closer to see if intervention is needed. It may save a life or even a whole school.

Gerry Vassar, President and CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

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