Still photo from Columbine High School Security Camera 4/20/99
Since 2013, there have been over 200 school shootings in the United States. These events have taken place, overwhelmingly, at colleges and high schools across the Nation. Yet a majority of colleges and high schools in the U.S. have no threat assessment team, no protocols for handling threats of violence, and no system where threatening students can be reported. These are not unpredictable events. Students and others wishing to do harm to a school, its employees, or other students do not just snap. In most cases, they've told others about their thoughts.
The majority of those who have committed these horrific crimes displayed psychological "leakage". In other words, they talked to others about their plans, made drawings or writings, made videos, and/or did other things that would give away their thoughts. When police searched Adam Lanza's (Sandy Hook) computer, for example, they found saved pictures of the Columbine shooters, a story about a school shooting from 1891, and pictures of Lanza holding a gun to his head. Lanza even wrote at story called "The Big Book of Granny" at age 10. This story includes the line, "let's hurt children". At Columbine, Harris and Klebold quite literally left clues everywhere... in their planners, in notebooks, online, and at one point even made and stored explosive devices in their own homes. Seung-Hui Cho (Va. Tech) wrote violent and disturbing stories. These stories were disturbing enough to garner him a referral for counseling services. But in each of these cases, no one thought to dig further. If they had, they would have found the images on Lanza's computer, pipe bombs in Harris' closet, and a 9mm handgun and more disturbing writings in Cho's dorm room. The bottom line is this... these are NOT unpredictable events.
While there is no single cohesive profile for school shooters, there are a number of red flag warning behaviors and emotional states. Dr. Peter Langman, a leading expert in school shootings and their perpetrators, believes that these shooters generally fall into one or more of three distinct categories. These are psychopathic, psychotic, and traumatized. While this generally seems to be true, there are also outliers like Dylan Klebold. Rather than fitting neatly into one of these categories, Klebold seems, by all evidence, to have been more depressed than anything else. Behaviorally, there are a number of red flags that can serve to indicate a student's (or anyone's) risk for violence. These include a fascination with weapons, themes of revenge, repeatedly watching movies or TV shows that speak to themes of revenge, idolizing previous school shooters, a belief in oneself as a martyr, just to name a few, can all be indicators of dangerousness. It should be noted, however, that none of these factors, either emotional or behavioral, can be viewed out of context as increasing the risk for violence. For example, many kids and teens like guns and have experienced trauma... those two factors alone are meaningless without a thorough and detailed threat assessment. More often than not, threat assessments do not find a student to be at risk for near-future violence. On occasion though, a thorough threat assessment can shine a light on a student at high risk for near-future violence.
Let's take a look at the horrific tragedy that occurred in Parkland, FL where 17 teens lost their lives to a school shooter. This unspeakable crime was committed by 19 year old Nikolas Cruz. According to available reports, Cruz had made threats to the school on multiple occasions. Those who knew him said, "He's the kind of guy that will shoot up the school one day". His family had concerns about his mental health and volatility, and anonymous tipsters fearing he would harm people, called the FBI. Given just this information and the fact that Cruz had ready access to guns, he would almost certainly have been deemed a very high risk for near-future violence if he had undergone a threat assessment. Recommendations for treatment would have been made, perhaps even up to inpatient hospitalization. Police and school personnel would have been made aware of these findings and likely would have more closely monitored Cruz's behavior. Short of inpatient hospitalization, however, nothing would affect his ability to purchase and possess guns. Unfortunately, and this is perhaps the most glaring hole in any risk assessment strategy, under current law (he had not been involuntary hospitalized) Cruz would still have his guns. They could not be seized even for a limited period of time. Without a law allowing for the seizure of weapons from those at high risk for violence, no intervention would have been likely to stop Cruz. Our justice system, much like our healthcare system, is designed to be reactive... not proactive. As a result, we find ourselves reacting in horror instead of relief, over and over again.
While new gun control laws are a big part of the answer to school shootings, we must be able to identify those at risk to be able to truly decrease the risk for school violence. Having a school threat assessment program should be, perhaps more than ever, an integral component of school safety. A trained team of school, police, and mental health professionals can assess and respond to any threat and collectively evaluate students who may be at high risk for near-future violence.
If you're a school administrator, a concerned parent, or simply a concerned citizen and you want to learn more about threat assessments and school threat teams, feel free to call us at 828-263-4480.
So it's that time of year again folks. Halloween is fast approaching. It's the time of year where I usually see a few kids who have gone, or been taken to so-called "Hell Houses". For those of you who don't know, Hell Houses are kind of like haunted houses, except that they claim to provide a realistic depiction of hell. They also claim that providing this experience to kids and teens helps them to be better Christians and to have some understanding of why they shouldn't risk going to hell.
Let me pause here for a moment and just say that this post is not an attack on any religion or any religious denomination. It's an attack on terrifying children into thinking that they or those they love could burn in hell for eternity. Not a good thing to do peeps. Now... maybe you're a firm believer in hell and you want to help your children to make decisions that will ensure they don't end up there. Fine.. just talk to them... share your concerns... help lift them up and give them hope.
Taking kids to a "Hell House" is traumatizing. Trust me. I've seen kids in therapy who, after visiting a "Hell House", became utterly convinced that they were going to hell. I've seen kids who visited these places who couldn't stop constantly monitoring their thoughts for fear they might think something that would get them sent to hell. I've seen kids with recurrent nightmares and burgeoning anxiety disorders brought on or exacerbated by, in large part, by the "Hell House" experience.
It's one thing to take a kid to a haunted house filled with witches, ghouls, and goblins which you and most other adults tell them are completely fake. It's something entirely different to take them to a place filled with demons and hell-fire and tell them it's entirely real... even if you believe it is.
Think about it.
So... your teen won't go to school. First things first, you need to know that this is abnormal behavior. Teens generally thrive on social interaction... in other words, they live for their friends. So having a teen adamantly refuse to go to school, where they can see their friends, tends to raise a lot of red flags.
Whenever I see a teen who won't go to school, a few issues come to mind before all others. First, is the teen being bullied? Teens will often seek to avoid school to avoid a bully who has threatened them in some way. Next, does the teen have significant anxiety? If so, it's likely this anxiety is being triggered by peers, school pressure, or an embarrassing situation. Being involved in an embarrassing situation can be a powerful motivator for school avoidance. Lastly, has the teen been hurt romantically? Romantic entanglements and rejection can serve to fuel the internal feelings of inadequacy and ineptitude that often go hand in hand with adolescence.
Many times teens, especially males, will make every attempt to hide being bullied from their parents. This is especially true of their fathers. Male teens don't want their fathers to see them as weak or scared. Unfortunately, if the male teen perceives their father to be exceptionally masculine, this may lend itself to a more closed-lipped teen where bullying is involved. It's important for fathers, where this situation may be occurring, to be open and honest with their teens about their own fears, their own insecurities, and their own youthful struggles to be confident and brave. After all, we've all been there.
Next, school avoidance may be fueled by anxiety. Or more specifically, an anxiety disorder. Generalized anxiety, social phobia, panic disorder, and other anxiety-related conditions can definitely impact school performance and the willingness to go to school. If the anxiety is severe enough, teens can experience significant somatic symptoms associated with their anxiety. These include: stomach upset; diarrhea; headaches; vomiting; panic attacks; and others. The core of teen anxiety usually centers around a fear of embarrassment in front of peers. This is, of course, the most prominent symptom in social phobia. Teens, however, are more likely to exhibit this symptom even if they don't meet full diagnostic criteria for social phobia due to their natural and developmental focus on social relationships. If you suspect your teen may be experiencing anxiety, make an appointment with a therapist who can help you ferret out these issues.
Now, it's also possible that your teen has experienced a personally embarrassing situation or been rejected by a romantic interest. Teens tend to feel things deeply and question their own self-worth as a result. A romantic rejection can feel like a complete condemnation of who the teen is, and who they believe themselves to be. It often takes months for a teen to rebound from a romantic rejection. These rejections may, of course, be exacerbated by anxiety and/or embarrassing or public revelations regarding a rejection.
So... to be clear, this is not an exhaustive list of possibilities as to why your teen may be avoiding school. But, in my experience, these problems are the most likely suspects. The bottom line is this, refusing to go to school is almost always an indicator that something serious is going on... and the best thing you can do in this situation is to get your teen in to see a therapist. Not just any therapist though... one who can readily gain the trust and confidence of your teen. Getting to the root of the problem is going to be paramount to solving the teen's desire to avoid school.
…with apologies to Bill Shakespeare...
Let's face it, as a parent of a teenager, you likely have enough battles on your hands. Asking your teen to take a drug screen is probably way down on the list of things you'd like to do. But if you suspect your teen is using drugs, how can you know for sure? You could ask them I suppose. You might get the truth... but if your teen is using drugs, it's all but guaranteed that you won’t.
If you suspect your teen may be using drugs or drinking and you're making an attempt to do something about it, you're already doing a great job. A desire to help your teen make positive decisions and avoid negative consequences is, of course, the hallmark of good parenting. But like anything we want to accomplish, we need to have a plan. We also need to involve our teen in the creation of the plan. Granted, your teen may refuse to cooperate. That's OK. What’s important though, whether they cooperate or not, is that they know we have a plan and that we intend on following through with it. Before we move on, however, a question. Are you committed to following through with holding your teen accountable? If you can't be 100% sure you’ll follow through, don't try it. If you don't follow through, you’ll be showing your teen that you can't or won’t hold him or her accountable. So, let's talk about what that plan might look like.
The subject of drug testing creates a lot of very strong feelings for many people. Some view drug testing as an invasion of privacy, others (especially teens) will say that if you drug test them, you obviously don't trust them. This is typically a rouse to get you on the defensive. If it works, you'll suddenly find yourself professing how much you do trust them instead of continuing to discuss their potential drug use. But, like it or not, drug testing is THE ONLY WAY to be certain that your teen is not using drugs.
Teens who use drugs become adept at hiding their use, masking their intoxication, and covering their tracks. If you don’t drug test, you'll most likely have to stumble upon drugs in their pockets to find out. Just to provide an example, I was masterful at hiding my own drug use in my adolescence... much to my eventual misery. My parents were super-smart and very alert people.. but they probably didn't really want to find out I was using and I certainly wasn't going to volunteer that information. So... you have to drug test your teen if you want to know. If you're reading this and you’re thinking you really don't want to know or that it’s just too hard to tackle this issue, let me assure you that you can do this.
The plan itself is relatively simple. Your teen submits to random and ongoing drug screens as long as you have even the slightest suspicion he or she may be using drugs. If they refuse to take the screen, you count that as a positive result. If they have a positive result, there are specific consequences tied to this. In this way, you're modeling the real world for your teen but without the harsh penalties often imposed by the justice system. You, as parents, formally enact a "Family Substance Abuse Policy" that applies to all kids in the home. The point of this policy is to make it more unpleasant for your teen to continue to use drugs than it is to stop. Now, having said all that, if you think your teen has moved beyond experimentation or use tied hand-in-hand with defiant and rebellious behavior, you need to get professional help. Like now...
1. Take your teen to a counseling center or other facility for drug screens. Make sure this facility sends these tests off to a certified lab and can give you a report of the levels of most any substance in your teen's urine. This will come in very handy... especially with marijuana use.
2. Along those same lines, DO NOT use home dipstick tests and DO NOT just let your teen take a cup and go in the bathroom. You or the facility staff need to literally watch them urinate in the cup. There are plenty of ways to fake a clean screen and dipstick tests are VERY easy to beat.
Maybe it's just me... but when a kid comes to see me, having already been given an ODD diagnosis, I'm immediately suspicious. Why? In my experience, there's almost always another problem that better explains the child's behavior. I'll get into that in a sec. First, let's talk about the ODD diagnosis itself. Rather than list out all the criteria for the diagnosis, I'll just list the 3 core categories: Angry/irritable mood; Argumentative/defiant behavior; and Vindictiveness. These symptoms need to have lasted for at least 6 months for a diagnosis. I think this sums up the diagnosis well without getting too far into the weeds.
One of the problems with the ODD diagnosis is that it's tautological. In other words, someone has ODD because they're oppositional and irritable... why are they oppositional and irritable? Because they have ODD. See how that works? It's often the case that therapists giving a child an ODD diagnosis have missed less prominent symptoms that may better explain a child's behavior. ADHD, depression, bipolar disorder, and others can absolutely cause the behavioral and emotional problems seen in ODD... especially if these conditions are untreated.
Let's be clear though, ODD is a valid diagnosis. Is it often mis-diagnosed? Yes. Are there typically underlying issues that account for ODD behavior and emotions? In my experience, yes. ODD is what we in the mental health profession often call a "catch-all" diagnosis. It's too broad and vague in its criteria. Because of this, kids with other conditions that may mimic ODD symptoms are "caught" in the diagnosis.
The moral of the story is this... If your therapist discusses giving your child an ODD diagnosis, ask a lot of questions. Ask about other conditions that can cause the behavioral and emotional problems seen in ODD. Ask your therapist to rule out these conditions prior to giving your child an ODD diagnosis. After all, the initial diagnosis tends to drive treatment, and being on the wrong road can get you lost fast.