August 10, 2023

Arrow’s D&I Speaker Series: A Conversation on School Violence with Dr. Allison Paolini & Ralph Griffin 

Category: D&I Series

Author: Michael Gutgsell

Allison Paolini is an assistant professor of school counseling and Director of Arkansas State University’s School Counseling Program. She sat down with Arrow resident Ralph Griffin to speak about gun violence, its causes, what can be done about it, and more. 

Gun violence is a pervasive, worldwide global epidemic, Paolini says. That being said, school shootings do seem to be mostly a US problem. She began the conversation by providing an overview on the three predominant causes of school violence: 

  1. Bullying is the leading cause of school violence. Bullying is unwanted, aggressive attention that is defined by an imbalance of power. Typically, the behavior is repeated and has long-lasting psychological effects.  
  1. Side effect of psychotropic medications (or noncompliance with taking medication). Some medications have side effects that exacerbate rage or may cause hallucinations of some sort.  
  1. Retaliation/Revenge – Students who feel isolated and angry and blame others for those feelings can come to believe that violence is the only recourse. They want to inflict the pain they are feeling on others.  

Most people who carry out school shootings have some sort of history of suicide attempts. Experiencing depression and desperation, they desire a sense of control. They have easy access to guns and may lack a strong family or peer support system as well as effective coping mechanisms. Most school shooters post threatening messages online and display a fixation on violence. Paolini stressed the importance of monitoring social media. Take every threat seriously. The FBI says to call authorities immediately if threats are posted.  

When discussing the factors that lead to school violence, Paolini touched on several exacerbating influences, the first being the breakdown of family structure. It is more common for parents to divorce and separate, an experience Paolini can empathize with as a single parent. Kids may be resentful of the change and feel troubled by the lack of parental presence (due to their parent having to work several jobs, for example). The pandemic placed a lot of stress on everyone. Kids went without the structure of school for a year and upon return faced increased academic stress in addition to feelings of isolation and disengagement. Many also experienced familial financial stress.  

Gun availability is problematic and gun control is a piece of reducing gun violence. In her opinion, Paolini believes there needs to be more stringent background checks and perhaps the minimum age to purchase a gun should be raised to 21.  

There is a lack of violence prevention programs in schools. There needs to be more training and integration of social/emotional learning. These are skills that kids need to be successful in life and are helpful ways to cope with the distress that can lead to violence. Paolini is the author of the reference book Using Social Emotional Learning to Prevent School Violence which includes lesson plans and activities that help develop soft skills in preschool to 12th grade settings.  

Youth exposed to violence in movies and video games may see violence as normalized and then think it is appropriate to enact in their reality. Of course, violence isn’t rampant just in virtual reality. There is an increase in community violence which is reflected in schools. Adults and youth are becoming desensitized to gun violence because it happens so frequently.  

Drug and alcohol usage can lead to an increase in violence since those under the influence are not thinking clearly.  

Parents who are in denial exacerbate the problem. Schools can only do so much; parents need to follow through with help. Some parents directly act in ways that facilitate school violence. Ethan Crumbley was clearly struggling before he carried out his massacre. His father purchased a semiautomatic handgun for his son who was obsessed with violence. The school called the parents in for a meeting to discuss disturbing pictures Crumbley was drawing, and the parents refused to acknowledge the issue or take him home. The same day he carried out the school shooting.  

Griffin then asked the million-dollar question: How can school shootings be prevented? Paolini said: “As school shootings are becoming more common, we have to be more proactive rather than reactive.” Active shooter drills may be helpful, but with the caveat that it can be triggering and traumatizing. The presence of metal detectors and truancy officers can also be a deterrent. As mentioned before, violence prevention programs need to be incorporated into education. With bullying the number one cause of school violence, there needs to be zero tolerance programs in place that will teach kids how to be “upstanders rather than bystanders.” Kids need to learn how to intervene when bullying occurs. Paolini provided several examples of programs that teach kids skills like accountability, leadership, and problem-solving, which are linked to at the end of this post.   

Educators and family members need to break down codes of silence. Kids have so much access to information, and we need to provide ways for them to come forward and share their concerns. Teachers and counselors need to build rapport, be visible, and provide opportunities for open conversations about bullying, grief and loss, empowerment, and diversity. Schools need to provide counseling and mental health support, and families can help by advocating for this. It is important for kids to be able to have open dialogue about what’s going on in their lives, how they are feeling, and build emotional identification skills. Kids want to feel heard and experience a sense of belonging. Giving them a platform to do so and to share builds trust and connectivity, which leads to a feeling of safety and inclusivity, which will foster academic and personal success.  

Research shows that the more involved parents are the more successful kids will be. Parents need to work closely with the school if their child is struggling. If parents see that their child is being cyber bullied, this must be reported within 24 hours. If family members are aware that their child is posting threats online, they must alert the school and authorities so proper steps can be taken to safeguard all involved. This can save lives. Again, every threat must be taken seriously. Parents need to emphasize accountability. There is an urge to fix problems for their children, but life experiences should be seen as learning opportunities.  

It is unfortunate that school violence has become such a politicized issue. “At the end of the day,” Paolini says, “It is a bipartisan issue because this is a humanitarian crisis. We need to unify as a country and really work together to create policies that will protect our precious, vulnerable populations.”  

During the conversation, Paolini provided several resources for additional data and violence prevention programs:  

Campus Safety website – Provides data on school violence. An overview Paolini provided during the conversation (Note: Paolini and Griffin spoke in August 2022): Approx. 1,924 school shootings have occurred since 1970. Since 1970, 637 people have been killed in school shootings and 1,734 injured. 2018 had the highest number of people killed in school shootings. Most shootings occur in the morning either in the parking lot or a classroom. Most victims are male. The majority of times, the shooter is a student at the school. Most school shootings occur in the fall, potentially because the student has been isolated all summer, which is why prevention and training need to happen at the start of the school year.  

Everytown – Is another platform that researches and gathers data on gun violence.  

Some comprehensive counseling programs that teach soft skills like active listening, empathy, compassion, collaboration, optimism and use research-based methods to prevent school violence:  

Sandy Hook Promise  

Anti-Defamation LeagueNo Place for Hate.  

Steps to Respect  

Learning for Life  

Leader in Me  

For the full conversation, click here.  

Saint Charles, Missouri-based Arrow Senior Living manages a portfolio of communities that offer varying levels of care, including independent living, assisted living, and memory care. Each and every senior living community supports residents by focusing on dignity, respect, and quality of life. The programs and amenities offered are selected to provide only the highest standard of quality and comfort.

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