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Beyond gun control: Exploring the underlying issues of school shootings


Joe Raedle | Getty Images | AFP

PARKLAND, FL: Nekhi Charlemagne writes a message on a cross setup in a makeshift memorial in front of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 19, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. Police arrested and charged 19 year old former student Nikolas Cruz for the February 14 shooting that killed 17 people.

John Burger - published on 03/06/18

Experts look at prospects of virtue education, forgiveness and responding to red flags.
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The national conversation since the February 14 Parkland, Florida, school shooting that left 17 people dead has been dominated by gun control. The general expectation now seems to be for legislators to fix the problem of school shootings with laws that will make it impossible or extremely difficult for people with bad intentions to get guns.

Accompanying this debate, several commentators have raised the issue of mental health. And, late last week, President Donald J. Trump reportedly called a meeting at the White House of companies that produce video games, apparently to explore the question of what role those games might play in leading young people to act violently against others.

And yet, as a nation, America seems to be no closer to finding an answer to why some people carry out mass shootings, especially in schools, and what can be done to prevent them in the future.

If lawmakers are able to find the perfect gun control measure, will that make the problem go away? If government spends more money on mental health care, will that solve it? If entertainment executives can be persuaded to produce video games with no violence, will our society have found the answer?

Or are there other, deeper issues that America is not talking about—and might not even know that they need to?

Aleteia surveyed several experts, including medical and mental healthcare professionals and researchers, to get their take.

More to read: South Florida massacre raises 2018 national death toll of school shootings to 23

Since 2013, there have bee 59 deaths in school shootings nationwide, according to the group Everytown for Gun Safety. Though there has been debate over the advocacy group’s inclusion of incidents such as accidental firings and suicides near campus, which seem to make the problem sound worse than it is, excessive anger is “becoming far more prevalent,” in the view of Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, director of the Institute for Marital Healing outside of Philadelphia and a spokesman for the Catholic Medical Association. A major source of that anger, he said, is school bullying.

“When children are bullied the response is very significant anger,” Fitzgibbons said.

Dr. Gregory Bottaro, author of The Mindful Catholic, sees certain similarities among many school shooters in terms of social isolation and the proclivity to violence, indulgence in video games and social media, a “narcissistic disregard for social norms” and “a detachment from what’s normal in society, which requires a kind of empathy for how your actions affect other people.”

Bottaro cautions that these characteristics may be present in a lot of people who don’t end up being school shooters. “But there’s an especially important red flag when you see a drastic change in behavior,” he said. “So you might have someone with these personality characteristics who’s always been that way, and that’s very different from somebody who has been fairly normal maintaining decent relationships … and then all of a sudden becomes very reclusive or turns to either gaming for long hours or disappears into a room for hours, starts missing school. The changes in behavior are really important to look out for.”

Among school shooters, there “seems to be a common thread of a real distortion in world view and not having any grounding in a world that makes sense or [seems] safe,” Bottaro said. “It can be a really scary world. We as Catholics see a Father who loves us, who created the world, who holds the world in being and makes it a safe place, and it makes it a place that makes sense. Even if there are bad things that happen, it all fits into the picture. We have a God who conquered death, so even death itself has meaning and has a place to understand it.”

But for someone who doesn’t have that world view, “this world is just in total chaos,” he said. “The external destruction and chaos is terrifying, and the internal destruction and chaos is terrifying. There’s a lot of brokenness in the family, in the home, with divorce, with parents that don’t how to connect with their kids. Social media is separating people further and further away from real relationship.”

The result sometimes is a “sense of internal chaos and disorder, so there’s nothing to ground a person’s experience,” he posited. “And it kind of becomes this existential hell. … And then you mix that with a desensitization to violence thru the media and video games with certain personality characteristics that are lacking empathy and understanding of social norms and how one’s actions affects others, and that’s where you really get a recipe for disaster.”

Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann, pediatric emergency medicine doctor at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, said families often don’t seek psychiatric care until it becomes a crisis.

“How are so many families getting to this point? Well, I think there’s a general lack of parenting support,” said Berchelmann, who is a mother of six children. “More and more, the role of parenting is outsourced to schools and all kinds of support agencies and after-school programs. Even kids who come from middle class families have breakfast, lunch and dinner at school because they have after-school activities going on. They’re doing that because their parents are working two full-time jobs. Even some stay at home parents feel they can benefit from those programs.”

Berchelmann, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, commented: “Traditionally, parenting support came from community organizations like churches, or your own family, your own parents. You talked to your own parents, you talked to the parents at church, or talked to the parents you’d meet at school. More and more, people don’t have these communities anymore. They’re not going to church; the parents you meet in your kids’ soccer league have their plates full; you’re not really forming relationships with the parents of your children’s friends, as you did in the past. And of course all family structures have broken down. There are less and less multigenerational family structures that are supportive to family.”

Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, said there is a growing focus on an concept in psychology called, simply, dangerousness: the “ability to predict if an individual … will do something dangerous or horrible in the future.”

”This youngster in Florida is a good example, where it was just obvious to everybody that he was going to snap,” Takooshian said.

“When it comes to the mass murderer, like Columbine or Sandy Hook or the Aurora theater, it looks like they’re alone or at least part of a tiny group,” said Takooshian. “But actually they’re heavily influenced by what they see other people doing. And that seems to be where we can short-circuit this whole problem, that is, instead of taking only a gun approach—I’m not saying guns are not a problem—but instead to look at early warning signs—and psychologists do have these early warning signs. This fellow in Parkland is an example. He was a fire-setter, he tortured animals. Those things are red flags. It’s true that we live in the US and we don’t want to take the liberty away from people who haven’t actually done anything, who have these warning signs only. But that’s where we are now: we have to try to predict dangerousness, we have to use the available data we have now and get these people back into the normal fold before they spin out of control.”

Others agreed on the need for intervention.

“There needs to be a protocol, where children who are bullied, in which the degree of rage is assessed: ‘Do you have violent impulses against those who hurt you?’ That is almost never explored,” Fitzgibbons said. “A child like this is usually given strong second-generation anti-psychotic medications to calm him down, but the impulses are not explored.”

Fitzgibbons has co-authored two books with psychologist Robert D. Enright, who was recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in promoting forgiveness.

”Using forgiveness against those who’ve hurt you diminishes your level of anger and your feelings of striking back at them,” Fitzgibbons said. “Many of the people we work with, even those who have violent impulses, will consider forgiving if we quote [Pope St.] John Paul II to them: basically, without forgiveness you can become a prisoner of your past. Anger locks in your low self-esteem, your obsessional thinking about the memories, about why you were bullied.”

More to read: Forgive One Another … But How?

The Pennsylvania psychiatrist said he and Enright are developing a protocol to help children learn how to let go of their impulses for revenge.

”Violent impulses are one thing, violent plans are another,” he said. “If you’re a mental health professional, and someone tells you they have a violent plan, and they name someone, then we have a responsibility to respond. They just crossed the line in terms of being a danger to others. We have to have some better process of getting those kids into a better treatment program, and it must require treatment. They’ve been badly bullied, and there’s no father at home. There are a number of markers. Playing violent video gaming, kids who have been bullied. I think it’s essential that their internet use be monitored.”

At the very least, Fitzgibbons said, a child who has been the victim of a bullying “should never never have access to a weapon.”

They should also not be playing violent video games. Similar to the relationship between watching pornography and acting out sexually. “Don’t buy it for your kids,” he advises parents. “Don’t allow it in your homes … there should be a real major warning” on such products.

On a more global scale, another possible avenue to pursue is the return of virtue education in school, which could combat a growing problem among young people: narcissism.

More to read: School Shootings: Can the Synod on the Family help?

”This whole issue of narcissism, selfishness is a major cause of excessive anger,” Fitzgibbons contended. “If you don’t get what you want you act out in anger.”

Bottaro added that society has to “develop a culture of illumination. People need to talk about these things. Bringing up concerns should never be shamed or disregarded. When people start to see, you know, ‘My friend is acting kind of weird,’ there should be an openness and an encouragement to explore that further, to talk to a teacher, a professional, a parent. There needs to be a real increase of mental health resources in the school system, whether social workers, counselors. Those people need to be ready with action teams and an action plan to know exactly what to do when a concern is raised for somebody, not in a punitive or inhibiting way but in an exploratory way to really help someone who’s really struggling.”

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