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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

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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