The emotional health of youth is the key factor in understanding the phenomenon of school violence. A study of 157 school shootings indicates that less than 20% of the shooters are mentally ill (University of Southern Illinois Medical School,2014). On the other hand, studies indicate that virtually all shooters are severely emotionally ill (“Case Studies on Violence and Social Rejection,” Clemson University/Wake Forest University/Winston-Salem University, 2003).
Most of the media and political attention regarding school violence is misdirected. It focuses on “how” to prevent these tragedies rather than examining “why” they occur. Talking heads dominate the news commenting on “commonsense” gun measures, arming teachers, and fortifying schools. Why not address the root cause of the problem rather than desperately trying to defend against it? The primary cause—the “why” of the shootings—resides in the emotional illness of young people who bear heart-rending feelings of being unwanted and unloved.
Mental illness has physical, organic origins. It’s brain chemistry gone awry. Manifested in illnesses such schizophrenia and bi-polar disorders, mental illness is typically treated by behavior modification counseling and drug therapy. Emotional illness is different. It’s the product of an environment where a child feels like no one—not one single person!—loves or cares about her.
The vast majority of shooters are raised in homes where they are abused or neglected. They carry feelings of low self-esteem to school where they are ridiculed and bullied. Without an adult champion in his life with whom he can confide his feelings, a severely-traumatized child may decide to ”make the world pay” for his feelings of acute loneliness and emotional pain. As one shooter said, “I’d rather be wanted for murder than not wanted at all” (James Garbarino, Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them).
The real question we should be asking in response to a school shooting is, “How can we address the emotional trauma that prompts some children to kill?” The primary answer resides in a Harvard study showing that a child’s best hope of resilience in the face of adversity is a stable, supportive relationship with a caring adult (Bari Walsh, “The Science of Resilience”). Oprah Winfrey points to her fourth-grade teacher, Mary Duncan, as the source of such a relationship. The victim of terrible physical and sexual abuse as a child, Oprah says that Ms. Duncan was the first person in her life to give her unconditional love. That relationship changed her life trajectory. Just one caring adult can make a similar difference in the life of a child.
Here in Texas (and I assume in every state), all teachers must acquire continuing education credits (CPEs) to maintain their professional standing. Congressional and state legislators should act now to require teacher enrichment courses to include at least one session helping teachers to provide the unconditional care and respect that allows every student to feel valued and wanted. Similar courses should be provided to parents at every school.
No more hand-wringing or partisan finger-pointing! We can address the primary cause of school violence by working together to secure the positive emotional health of every child. All parents, teachers, and legislators must take action, motivated by the sure knowledge that CHILDREN WHO FEEL LOVED DO NOT SHOOT UP SCHOOLS!
Wilkerson is the President and Founder of The Children’s Center for Self-Esteem (dba The ARKGroup) and the author of the ARK (Adults Relating to Kids) Programs. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 713-471-8922.
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