'You Never Quit Trying': Preventing Gun Violence In Schools

Oct 25, 2015
Originally published on October 25, 2015 4:52 pm

We could start this story as we usually do with reminding of you of all the recent school shootings — including one just Thursday night at Tennessee State University — reporting how many people were killed, what inspired the shooter. We could hear local leaders condemning the acts of violence.

But this narrative is so much a part of our culture and our politics right now that we don't need to remind you how we got here.

Instead, let's meet a couple of people who have dedicated much of their professional lives to preventing this kind of violence.

This week on For the Record: The work to keep kids safe.

Click the audio link on this page to hear the full story.


Before Joni Greenberg started working to raise awareness of mental health issues in schools, she spent more than 20 years as a high school guidance counselor in West Virginia.

"I loved working with the students, trying to help them navigate life and how to survive a breakup," she says.

But the 1999 Columbine shooting changed everything.

She started looking more carefully into the lives and motivations of her students. Signs from students that have given her pause include social isolation, mental illness, tough home lives – and one avid hunter who had an obsession with guns.

But the time she was most concerned was when a classroom had to be cleared because a child wouldn't leave, because "he was having a bad day," she says. "This child was angry."

When Greenberg finally got a chance to sit down with that student, she found out that he'd just been really mad about one particular homework assignment and ultimately found his way out of that anger.

Every guidance counselor has a story like this. But what are teachers and administrators supposed to do if the situation escalates, or if the nagging worries about one student just don't go away?

That's what Greenberg focuses on now as the manager of a $500,000 grant given to Berkeley County Schools in West Virginia, where she works as a Project Aware coordinator. The money funds programs designed to increase awareness of mental health issues. Part of that means training people to recognize when someone could be a potential threat to themselves or others.

It's work that psychologist Gene Deisinger has been doing around the country since the early '90s.

"We're asking people to pay attention to those things that seem out of the norm or disproportionate to the situation, like a person becoming more isolated and withdrawn, they're expressing ideas about the use of violence," he says.

Shortly after the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007, Deisinger was brought in as a security consultant.

"There were people who were so frightened and so hypersensitive to the risk of another incident," he says, and "... on the other end of the spectrum, there are also those people who were dealing with their trauma through the use of denial and a belief of well, 'because we've experienced the worst, nothing else bad can happen. And this focus on safety and security and mental illness is too much, being made too late and it's not relevant anymore.' "

But it was relevant, Deisinger says, because just a few years after the Virginia Tech massacre, another person on campus with mental health concerns, posed a risk.

When this individual came to the attention of the university staff, they "implemented the threat management process," he says, "and thankfully had a significant effect in de-escalating the situation."

Intervention is key, he says. So much of this training is something we hear all the time now: "If you see something, say something."

It can be especially hard for teenagers to combat the idea of "tattle telling," but Joni Greenberg says it's still crucial to say something.

"They think their friend is never going to talk to them again if they tell somebody that they're feeling suicidal," she says. "And you try to tell them, 'Would you rather they be mad at you or would you rather them commit suicide?' But it is hard."

She says gun safety is also an important and tough issue to wade into.

"People don't always like to be told what to do with their guns," she says. "You just try to educate the students."

For example, Greenberg says last year West Virginia's Hedgesville High School conducted an exercise designed to prepare teachers if gun violence does happen.

"We brought in ... the state police and they would put us in the cafeteria and then they would go to the opposite end of the school and shoot three different guns," she says, "... and the closer they got, the more upsetting it was."

Even though the officers were shooting blanks, she says, "when you hear that gun in your building, it's just like you can't not face it."

Gene Deisinger says the jury is out on whether these kinds of simulations really do any good. And if they aren't carried out properly they can be traumatizing to those taking part.

The role playing, the simulations and the trainings are about giving people a sense of control about their own safety. But what about the dangers of cultivating a culture of fear?

Joni Greenberg says you don't want to scare children, but the consequences of inaction aren't acceptable.

"You always have to try," she says. "I mean look at Sandy Hook. That was devastating. So yeah, you never quit trying and you never quit inventing ways to make your school safer."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to talk about gun violence. And we could start this story as we usually do - with a lot of tape reminding you of all the recent school shootings, including one just Thursday night at Tennessee State University. We could play news clips reporting how many people were killed, what inspired the shooter. We could hear local leaders condemning the acts of violence. But this is a story that is so much a part of our culture right now and our politics, we don't need to remind you how we got here. Instead, we're going to introduce you to a couple of people who've dedicated much of their professional lives to preventing this kind of violence. For the Record this week, the work to keep kids safe.

JONI GREENBERG: I'm Joni Greenberg, and I am the Project Aware coordinator for West Virginia and Berkeley County Schools. And I live in Martinsburg, W.Va.

MARTIN: Before that, she spent more than 20 years as a high school guidance counselor.

GREENBERG: I loved working with the students, trying to help them navigate life and how to survive a breakup. I loved that.

MARTIN: But the shooting at Columbine in 1999 changed everything. And after that, she was looking more carefully into her students' lives and motivations. Most of the time, the kids who came to her were just going through the tough stuff of adolescence. There were exceptions, though.

Have you encountered a student in your career that did give you pause, someone who you thought was potentially a threat?

GREENBERG: I think I've had two.

MARTIN: How so? What kind of signs do you see?

GREENBERG: The social isolation, maybe not fitting in. They've probably felt like they've been bullied. Some of them haven't had real good home lives. One of them, I think, was undiagnosed with mental illness and the one had kind of an obsession with guns. He was an avid hunter 'cause that's real popular in our area. The one I think I was probably most concerned, there were behaviors at school that were alarming.

MARTIN: Like what?

GREENBERG: At times, we might have to clear a classroom because the child wouldn't leave the classroom when he was having a bad day. This child was angry.

MARTIN: Every guidance counselor has a story like this. When Joni Greenberg finally got a chance to sit down with that student, she found out he had just been really mad about one particular homework assignment, and eventually he found his way out of that anger. But what are teachers and administrators supposed to do if the situation escalates or if the nagging worries about one student just don't go away?

This is what Joni Greenberg focuses on now. She left her job as a high school guidance counselor, and now she manages a $500,000 grant that was given to her county in West Virginia. The money funds programs designed to increase awareness of mental health issues. Part of that means training people to recognize when someone could be a potential threat to themselves or others. It's work psychologist Gene Deisinger has been doing around the country since the early 1990s.

GENE DEISINGER: We're asking people to pay attention to those things that seem out of the norm or disproportionate to the situation, like person becoming more isolated and withdrawn, they're expressing ideas about the use of violence.

MARTIN: Shortly after the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007, Gene Deisinger was brought in as a security consultant.

DEISINGER: There were people who were so frightened and so hypersensitive to the risk of another incident that they were seeing a lot of risk where from an objective standpoint, it wasn't there. And we had to work through that together as a community.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are also those people who were dealing with their trauma through the use of denial and a belief of, well, because we've experienced the worst, nothing else bad can happen. And this focus on safety and security and mental illness is too much being made too late and it's not relevant anymore.

MARTIN: Gene Deisinger says it was relevant because just a few years after the Virginia Tech massacre, another person on campus had a plan of their own.

DEISINGER: There was a case involving an individual that did have significant mental health concerns in particular, developed a plan of action, gathering weapons to do that. When he came to the attention of university staff who implemented the threat management process, and that was one of the first interventions and thankfully had a significant effect in de-escalating the situation.

MARTIN: Intervention is key, he says. So much of this training is something we hear all the time now, right? If you see something, say something.

DEISINGER: We encourage people, if they had an interaction or observed some things and they were pondering to themselves, quote, "this may be nothing but," and we use that phrase because we've heard it so often. And if it was, in fact, nothing, we'd all be happy and relieved.

MARTIN: I asked Joni Greenberg if that is especially hard with teenagers.

I imagine some kids - you have to combat this idea that it's tattle telling in some way, right?

GREENBERG: Yes, believe it or not, you still do. They think their friend is never going to talk to them again if they tell somebody that they're feeling suicidal. And, you know, you try to tell them, would you rather they be mad at you or would you rather them commit suicide? But it is hard. They want to do the right thing by their friend, and they feel like by keeping their confidence, that's doing the right thing.

MARTIN: Greenberg says she's doing what she can to spot mental health issues in her schools, but gun safety is also important, she says. And that's a tough issue to wade into.

GREENBERG: People don't always like to be told what to do with their guns. You just try to educate the students.

MARTIN: There are efforts to prevent an act of gun violence in schools, but there are also exercises designed to prepare teachers if it does happen.

GREENBERG: Last year at Hedgesville High School, we brought in - I think it was the state police. And they would put us in a cafeteria and then they would go to the opposite end of the school and shoot three different guns. They would move closer, and at one point, they put us in classrooms with the door closed. And the closer they got, the more upsetting it was. It just made it very real, I guess, to think about what those children went through when that was happening and what it would be like if it was happening in our school.

MARTIN: The police officers in this exercise were using blanks. Even so...

GREENBERG: When you hear that gun in your building, it's just, like, you can't not face it.

MARTIN: Gene Deisinger told me that he thinks the jury is out on whether these kinds of simulations really do any good. And if they aren't carried out properly, he says they can be traumatizing to those taking part. With all these kinds of prevention efforts, there is a line you don't want to cross. The role playing, the simulations, the trainings, it's all about giving people a sense of control about their own safety. But all that awareness-raising can have consequences.

Do people ever accuse you of cultivating a culture of fear?

DEISINGER: Not often, but it certainly happened. But through our work, we've seen organizations for many years take proactive steps to identify, assess and manage concerns out of a desire to prevent, where possible. So I don't think there's any need for us to focus on a fear-mongering affect.

MARTIN: I asked Joni Greenberg the same thing about fear. She says you don't want to scare children, but the consequences of inaction are not acceptable.

GREENBERG: You always have to try. I mean, look at Sandy Hook. That was devastating. So yeah, you never quit trying. And you never quit inventing ways to make your school safer.

MARTIN: Joni Greenberg, former guidance counselor at Hedgesville High School in West Virginia and Gene Deisinger, managing partner of Sigma Threat Management Associates. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.